August 31, 2016 – He’s a 3-time Lebanese Rally Champion, a 4-time Lebanese Hill Climb Champion and a two-time Rally of Lebanon winner – all in the front-wheel drive category. Although his chances of securing a fourth rally championship title look slim, he believes it’s still possible with a bit of luck. However, his main target is to extend his record to 3 wins in Rally of Lebanon. We interview Robert Aaraj ahead of the 39th Rally of Lebanon to find out more about his season so far.
Q: This has not been an ideal season for you. You missed the Spring Rally, finished 2nd in Jezzine Rally and retired whilst fighting for the lead in Cedars Rally. Talk us through it.
A: I missed Spring Rally because I had no sponsor and I had a lot of work commitments. I decided to return to the championship in Jezzine Rally, in which we did very well and finished 2nd in the category despite overheating issues with the engine. We were well prepared for the Cedars Rally and we had a healthy 22-second lead in our class until a power steering issue teared my shoulder – which was already under treatment. It was bad luck, but we showed great pace in an older-generation car. We’re prepared for Rally of Lebanon and our target is to win.
Q: You went back to driving the Renault Clio R3 this season after spending the past two seasons in a Citroen DS3 R3. Why, and can you provide a comparison of the two cars?
A: I own the Renault Clio R3 Maxi with which I won my first championship title. I switched to the Citroen DS3 R3 because I had the budget and I wanted to try something different. I managed to win the FWD title in the Lebanese Rally Championship and the Lebanese Hill Climb Championship for two seasons in a row with the DS3, but I couldn’t commit to the DS3 this year as I wasn’t sure of my plans and I had to notify Roger (Feghali) so that he would make the car available for someone else. When I decided to return, the Renault Clio R3 was there and I decided to use it. It was a good choice.
The difference between the two is that the Clio R3 has more horsepower, while the DS3 R3 has more torque. You need to be more aggressive and need to go flat out in the Renault, otherwise you lose a lot of time because it has no turbocharger and anti-lag, whereas the turbocharger and anti-lag in the Citroen are very helpful especially whilst pulling out of the corners. I think I proved that I’m capable of winning in both cars, despite their differences in driving style, so I’m very happy.
Q: You have a slim chance of defending your title. Does that hurt your confidence or does it give you a reason to push for the win since you have nothing to lose? What’s your strategy going to be?
A: The title fight is mainly between Bassel Abou Hamdan and Rony Kanaan, but I can also win it if I triumph in Rally of Lebanon and both of them retire. Mathematically, it’s still possible, but there’s no doubt that Henry and I are outsiders. I would like to defend my Rally of Lebanon victory, while Henry wants to prove that he can win the rally, so it’s going to be very interesting. Henry is a great driver and it’s always a pleasure to compete against him.
Q: You’ve had two new co-drivers this year, Elie Mousallem and Louai Sakr. How was your experience with the two and do you find it easy to switch co-drivers frequently or does it add to the challenge?
A: I was not going to compete in a full-time program, which is why I told Samer (Sfeir) not to commit with me. Samer ended up with Rony Kanaan and I teamed up with Elie Mousallem. Elie is one of the best co-drivers in Lebanon as he sat alongside top drivers such as Roger Feghali, Nicolas Amiouni, Tamer Ghandour and Eddy Abou Karam. I was very comfortable with Elie in Jezzine and he promised to be with me in Rally of Lebanon in case Nicolas Amiouni decided not to compete. On the other hand, Louai was also great; he’s very experienced and it’s just a shame that we couldn’t complete the event together. Both Elie and Louai are experienced, so I found it easy to switch.
Q: Moving on from ROL, what are you planning for next year? Also, have you considered competing in the UAE, where you work?
A: It’s too early to think about next season and our focus is now on Rally of Lebanon. I competed in Dubai Rally in 2011 and I was third in Group N before retiring. I would definitely consider participating abroad if the budget and my time allow it.
Q: Robert, who would you like to thank?
A: I would like to thank my sponsors who allowed me to return to the championship: B Design, Elements Sun & Wind, Daze and RGK Insurance Brokers. Thank you to Ghassan Khoury for preparing the car, Sami Awad, Jihad Melki and Jihad Mrad, in addition to my co-drivers Elie Mousallem and Louai Sakr. A big big thanks to Roger Feghali and Motortune Racing who were with me throughout the season and helped me when needed.