Like the rest of us, Mattias Ekström has had a pretty strange 2020. At the start of the year, the Swedish ace was scheduled to race in the all-electric Pure ETCR touring car championship for Spanish manufacturer CUPRA.
Yet as COVID-19 gradually began to alter the state of the world as we knew it, CUPRA reconsidered its commitment to the electric-tin top series. Meanwhile, the organisers of Pure ETCR also put their plans for the ground-up electric championship on hold until 2021 as they seek to adapt its fan-friendliness to a world that’s been fundamentally changed by the global pandemic.
As CUPRA re-defined their plans for 2020, Ekström once again returned to competing in the FIA World Rallycross Championship. He pretended his comeback to World RX - a championship he won in 2016 with his own EKS team - was an April Fool’s prank on his social media channels. However, his return has been anything but a joke.
Once again driving the Audi S1 EKS RX car developed by EKS but run under the KYB Team JC banner, Ekström has taken two victories including a sensational win on home-turf in Höljes, Sweden, after a titanic weekend-long battle with compatriot Johan Kristofferson in the all-conquering Volkswagen Polo R Supercar.
At the time of writing, Ekström lies second in the standings just 20 points behind championship Kristofferson, and a comfortable 27 points ahead of 2019 World RX title winner, Timmy Hansen.
However, like all forms of international motorsport, the number of World RX rounds is determined by whether there is a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases where races are held.
In 2020, World Rallycross has almost become a way to pass the time for Ekström until next year. He knows he’s quick in the series - in fact, he’s the second most decorated driver in the history of the sport - and he’s a racing driver. Racing drivers thrive psychologically and physically off of competition. It’s part of their make up and in his own words, he’s “in it to win it.”
Yet his upcoming adventure for 2021 with CUPRA in Extreme E is arguably the biggest challenge that the 42-year-old has had to face in his career. Unlike any other category he has competed in before, Extreme E brings together what Ekström described as “quite the mix of rally raid, GT racing, rallycross.”
To give some backstory to Extreme E, it’s the brainchild of Alejandro Agag. The same Alejandro Agag who built Formula E from scratch and has since turned it into a global motorsport phenomenon.
Formula E is the most manufacturer-dense FIA-sanctioned championship in the world. The fully-electric championship has Audi, BMW, Porsche, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and other top-level car manufacturers all competing for title honours.
No surprises then, that in engineering terms at least, there is more than just a little cross over between Formula E and Extreme E.
The car used in Extreme E is an E-SUV called the ODYSSEY 21. It’s built by Spark Racing Technology - the engineering wizards responsible for creating the standardised car used in Formula E - and its batteries are produced by Williams Advanced Engineering who also supply the batteries for the teams competing in the single-seater series.
In its standard form, the ODYSSEY 21 is good for 400kw - the equivalent of 550bhp - worth of power. It has a 0-62mph time of 4.5 seconds and the ability to climb 130-degree plus gradients. It’s not silly quick like a World RX car, but given that the ODYSSEY 21 weighs 1,650 kilograms, it’s certainly fast enough. Like in Formula E, it’s also up to the series’ eight competing teams to get the best out of their package with the standardised equipment that they have.
The FIA-sanctioned championship will begin with the Ocean X Prix at Lac Rose in Senegal in January 2021. Thereafter, it will take its competing eight teams and each of their two drivers - one of the rules of Extreme E is that there are two drivers in each car; one male, one female - to four other far-flung locations around the globe that have been drastically altered by climate change.
Extreme E’s green and sustainability-awareness raising credentials have also caught the attention of F1 world champions Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. While neither driver will compete themselves, Hamilton has entered his own team called X44, and Rosberg’s outfit will race under the Rosberg Xtreme Racing - or RXR - banner.
Neither Hamilton’s role as one of the leading voices in the global movement for change, nor Rosberg’s status as the only man to have beaten Hamilton to the title in F1’s hybrid-era phases Ekström in terms of competition.
In fact, Ekström admits that he “wouldn’t be bothered by” competing against either should either Formula 1 title winner change their mind and choose to compete in Extreme E later on. After all, the Swede is a record-holding four-time winner of the Race of Champions - an event in which he has beaten the likes of Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, Sébastien Loeb, and Tom Kristensen.
“I have a lot of respect for what Lewis has achieved in his Formula 1 career, and I remember in DTM I saw him coming up through Formula 3 as a support series and he was mega,” Ekström chirpily tells Dyler.com. “There are a few things about him that I like and I respect, but there are some other things he does that I’m not sure how to evaluate…
“However, he’s a big influence to many people and he’s a leading figure on the global platform for change, so I think it’s great that he’s set up a team in Extreme E. The same goes for Nico, too!
“Do I want to beat their teams and challenge them? Yes, of course, I do. Even if Lewis and Nico were driving themselves, I wouldn’t care because Extreme E is not Formula 1. I think everyone in Extreme E is starting from zero so there’s no definite favourite from the get-go because everyone’s beginning a new chapter.
“To sum it up honestly, yes, I think I can beat Lewis and Nico’s teams in Extreme E and I think I could beat them if they were racing - they’re just competitors like anyone else, and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t waste my time trying. Like I always say, “I’m in it to win it” and I’ll be disappointed in myself if I don’t succeed.”
According to Ekström, the appeal of Extreme E doesn’t just lie in the competition and the challenge of having to learn an all-new type of motorsport. The series’ calendar travels to some of the most climate change-ravaged places on earth. The Swede feels that this decision by the series’ will serve as a wake-up call to the wider motorsport community to seek more sustainable solutions to reduce its carbon footprint.
“I think we have to look at this from two ways, because from one side of the coin, we need to look after our planet, and we also need to keep motorsport what it is - a sport,” he explains. “I think it’s crucial for motorsport to understand the carbon footprint it creates, and that goes for me too.
“Honestly, I look back over the last 20 years or so that I’ve been competing in DTM, World Rallycross, Bathurst, and other stuff and I am just as responsible for this as anyone. If I look back, I would actually say that the amount I’ve travelled has done more damage to the environment than the actual racing I’ve done - there won’t be a lot in it, but I honestly think that’s the case.
“So back to Extreme E travelling to some of these places then yeah, I think it’s a good way to raise awareness, and Alejandro Agag has done this really well in relation to electric vehicles through Formula E.
“I’m actually quite nervous about where we’re going because it’s taking me out of my comfort zone. Sure, on the Extreme E website, the events look picture postcard nice, but I think actually when we’re there, I’ll be saying “wow, are things really that bad?” instead of “wow, this area of natural beauty is amazing!”
“To be honest with you, I’ve started feeling this awkward feeling about going to these places, because we’ll see that we’ve actually treated the planet really badly. It’s up to us to explore and find solutions that will help us reverse this.”
Throughout this particular conversation with Ekström, what becomes apparent is that while he is an advocate for more sustainability amongst individuals as well as the automotive and motorsport worlds, he doesn’t feel that car makers have made enough progress with electricity to make EVs the definitive future of motoring.
“I started experimenting with electric cars in 2015 when ABT entered Formula E, and I was talking with them about developing an electric World Rallycross car for EKS because I really thought - and still think - that an EV would suit the nature of World RX racing,” he reveals. “It didn’t happen for whatever reasons, but I still think that in the future, electric cars will play an even bigger role than they already are in motorsport and the real world.
“However, I don’t think they are the only solution because I don’t think things have moved quick enough, to be honest. I live in a city where an electric car would be perfect for short journeys, because that’s where I do most of my day-to-day business. You can regenerate the battery with the brakes and there are a lot of public charging stations. In rural areas, this isn’t the case.
“As a hobby, I fly R/C helicopters and planes and as a kid, I used to race R/C cars back in Sweden. I understand that batteries don’t like it if they get too hot or they get too cold. This affects the range and range anxiety is something that car manufacturers are still struggling with. This is why when I go on a longer trip out of the city with my family, then I’d say that biogas would be a better solution than electricity to keep my carbon footprint down.
“In Sweden, they are doing something really cool by turning tree juice into fuel, and we all know you can recycle what comes out of the backend of a cow if you’re committed to shovelling through that,” he adds lightheartedly.
“There are plenty of options out there for us to help reduce our carbon footprint, so I’m not the guy who believes that the future will be entirely electric - it’s up to the individual to decide what is best for them and what fits their lives better.”
The idea of self-responsibility is a concept that Ekström seems to value as an individual and in others and it comes up repeatedly throughout the conversation.
Despite joking that perhaps Hamilton should “hitch-hike to all his races if he’s so committed to climate change,” Ekström believes that if a push for change is being made - whether it be environmental or otherwise - then “your words have to match your actions.”
“I don’t think it matters if you’re in motorsport or any other business, your words have to match your actions if you are committed to a specific cause,” he explains cautiously. “You have to be aware of your own behaviour and do your best to ensure that you are aware of your own behaviour, and understand that sure, words are great, but your actions are better.
“I’m not saying that Lewis should hitch-hike to all his races if he’s so committed to climate change, because that would take him a very, very long time,” he adds with a laugh. “No, that’s a pretty extreme thing to say and of course I am not serious when I say this, but I think it’s deserved to hold those who say we should do this and do that to accountability and question whether they are doing enough to be more environmentally friendly or whatever they are fighting for.”
As someone who’s clearly very aware of the world around him, what then, has Ekström done as an individual - not a racing driver - to play his part in the fight against climate change?
To answer this question, we get a rare glimpse into the private person who we seldom get to see behind the crash helmet. He calls out in German to his girlfriend Heidi who’s in the adjacent room to remind him of the name of Cowspiracy - a Netflix documentary film that Ekström describes as “a real wake up call” about sustainable agriculture - because he’s “talking to a journalist on the phone about it.”
“Heidi showed me this film on Netflix called Cowspiracy and man, it’s one of the strongest things I have ever, ever watched. It’s a real wake up call about mass agriculture because you see the consequences that intense farming can do - it’s still on Netflix, so please watch it!
“I would say that out of anyone, Heidi has been the biggest influence on me in terms of consuming less. I’ve never been a massive spender, but I am now more conscious of how and where I spend my money, and taking better care of my equipment and my clothes are part of that.
“Another thing I do is not throwing things in the rubbish when I have finished with them - for example, if I have a pair of shoes that aren’t worn out but I am done with them, I ask a friend if they want to have them - they get a cool pair of shoes, and it’s win-win for everyone.
“The biggest change in becoming a more conservative consumer has happened in relation to what I eat. No, I am not a vegan, but I am when I can be. If I cannot be a vegan, I am vegetarian. If there’s no option to be vegetarian, then I’ll eat meat.
“I’m not an absolutist in this, so I guess you could call me a flexitarian, but you could definitely say I’ve reduced my meat and dairy consumption a lot - it’s made me feel healthier and my conscience is also lighter as a result.
“I’m not saying that you can do more racing if you’re smarter about how you live,” the jovial Swedish character concludes. “It just makes you feel a lot better about it if you do!”
To find out more about future classic EVs, click these four yellow words to read a feature we wrote with CarPervert on this subject earlier on in the year.
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