March 16, 2017 – Matthias Njeim won the RC5 class title in the Lebanese Rally Championship last year in a Suzuki Swift and on his debut season. This year, things aren’t very different for the young driver who’s keeping the Suzuki. However, he does have a couple of other interesting plans that he revealed in this interview.
Q: Matthias, last year was your very first in the Lebanese Rally Championship. Talk us briefly about it. How was the experience?
A: My season last year was great. After 9 years of karting, it was something completely new to me and I learned a lot. I gained so much experience throughout the season, much more than I actually expected. Overall, it was a very good season for me, it all went to plan except in the Cedars Rally where I crashed out and therefore missed Bkassine Hill Climb because my car wasn’t ready.
Q: You’ll be racing the Suzuki Swift in the RC5 category once again this year. You have no competition in this category, so what is your aim for the season?
A: I will be racing the Suzuki again this year in rallies, therefore I’ll be starting the season much more relaxed so I can focus on all other stuff in the car. You have to focus on things like relying on pacenotes, having a good rhythm in the rally without having to worry about getting used to the car, and this gives us a chance to work and improve on last year’s mistakes. In the Hill Climb championship, I will be racing an R2 in the RC4 category so I will have a championship to compete in and hopefully a title to win.
Q: Your older brother Patrick has switched from an R2 to an R3, so there are budget constraints for the two of you. How do you think you can go forward?
A: Patrick will be racing the Citroen DS3 R3 this year because he had to move up, and it’s true that we have a limited budget, but he had to move up to the R3 so we couldn’t remove from his budget, otherwise he would have to stay in the R2 and there’s only one R2 car available. All we can do is search for sponsors, and we’re already getting huge help from Roger (Feghali) who’s giving us great deals. Hopefully with good results this year we can get a few sponsors for later on and I think that’s our only option for now.
Q: Patrick raced in France last year in Rallye d’Antibes. Is there a similar plan for you this year?
A: Rallye d’Antibes definitely helped and taught Patrick a lot. When he came back to Lebanon right after Antibes he was right at the front in the front-wheel drive category, starting Jezzine Rally until Rally of Lebanon; he was always within the top 3. We have something planned for this year, and it’s not in France because Europe is very expensive. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be racing a Mitsubishi Evo VIII in Cyprus where we are aiming to gain experience on gravel, which is something completely new for me and something I have to do to get more feel in the car and to develop my driving skills.
Q: Have you or Patrick considered switching to a Mitsubishi Evo VIII in the local championship or do you think Front-wheel drive is a better alternative?
A: I think the best is to start on a front-wheel drive car in order to learn the basics and after that I think the most logical switch is to Group N, before switching to an R5. Locally, you can’t race an Evo VIII if you want to compete and finish on the top, that’s why a switch to Group N would be pretty expensive because you would have to race on a good Evo IX or an Evo X.
Q: You’re currently the youngest rally driver in Lebanon. Talk us through the whole rallying experience. Was it as hard as you were expecting?
A: That is true, I’m currently the youngest rally driver in Lebanon. Rallying is something completely different to karting. My experience in regular road cars was my main obstacle; it took me a bit of time to adapt to the Suzuki although it’s the slowest car, but it’s much larger than a kart and I have a co-driver next to me, so it was a very different feeling. I got my driving license two weeks before my first rally, so I hadn’t spent much in a road car before but it didn’t take me much time to get used to it.
Q: Who would you like to thank ahead of this season?
A: I would like to thank Roger with the Motortune Racing Academy and my dad, without both of them together I wouldn’t be racing right now. A huge thank you goes to them for making all of this possible and for teaching me so much. I would also like to thank my sponsors from last year who are actually making this easier for us to do, and I’m still waiting for this year’s sponsors to see who to thank (laughs).