The Audi quattro celebrates its 40th year in 2020, and there are few drivers more synonymous with the Audi brand than Mattias Ekström. From 2002 to 2018, the Swede raced for the manufacturer and took two championships – one in 2004 and another in 2007 – behind the wheel of the iconic Red Bull liveried blue Audi A4 DTM.
In 2016, after a titanic season-long battle with Norway’s Petter Solberg, Ekström was also crowned that year’s FIA World Rallycross champion with the Audi S1 EKS RX; a supercar-class World Rallycross car designed and run by his own EKS team whose name comes from the three-letter code ‘EKS’ which was used to identify him on-track in the DTM.
When Audi withdrew from World RX at the end of 2018, Ekström also left the sport as a full-time driver. He also left the Audi family after 17 years to focus on other endeavours, which include a new position as lead driver with CUPRA in the electric e-TCR championship.
After successfully completing the recent Red Bull Wings for Life marathon, Ekström took the time to have an in-depth discussion with Dyler.com about running and driving for his own World Rallycross team, his biggest World RX rivals, the young Lithuanian he sees as the future of the sport, and why electric power may well be the future of World RX.
So, how does double DTM champion and World Rallycross champion Mattias Ekström feel about swapping the internal combustion engine for electric power? It’s the first thing I ask.
“During my career, I raced only petrol-powered cars and an electric race car was something I wanted to try for a while,” he recalls. “It appeared that we would go electric in World Rallycross but that didn’t happen, so what else can I say? It was something I wanted to try, and here we are!”
Despite his amusing, easy-going tone and the rhetorical questions he intermixes with his replies, Ekström’s answers about electric racing are well-considered. He reveals that he was an advocate for World Rallycross switching to electric power in 2020 - a move now deferred to 2022 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hoped for a long time that World RX would move to electric power, because I think that its short-race format is perfect for this. The cars would be very, very quick with around 1100Nm of torque and 613BHP. An electric World Rallycross Supercar would be the ideal compromise between entertainment and sport because the fans would still have the close racing they love, and the manufacturers would also benefit from showcasing their EV technology.”
Throughout the conversation, the Swede uses what became affectionately known by journalists in the DTM as “Eki-isms” - long answers, which rely heavily on humorous and often-unusual metaphor. His next response is no different as he rapidly switches between the amusing to the self-critical whilst offering a solution that could attract the manufacturers back to an all-electric World Rallycross championship.
“Think of it a bit like this. It’s like going to a Brian Adams concert where there’s lots of singing and lots of dancing, and it’s something that you got used to as a fan. Then bam - the show was immediately replaced by a hologram.”
“If I were to have done this - and remember that I am still a fan on one side, but a driver and team owner on the other - I would ask this: would you prefer to have electric rallycross or not rallycross? I hope most people who love the sport would say electric rallycross!
“On another level, we can take this question further and ask: “would you prefer to have no rallycross or manufacturer-backed rallycross?” Well, here’s how we can solve this problem: You could have privateer teams running Supercars with internal combustion engines in the European Rallycross Championship, and the World Championship would run Supercars powered by electric - that way, the fans would get all the lovely pops and bangs from the internal combustion engine cars in Euro RX, and really fast cars in the electric World Championship series.”
After Ekström won the World Rallycross Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships with his then-private EKS team in 2016, the following season brought about a changing of the World RX order - Volkswagen entered the championship as a manufacturer in 2017 with its Polo GTi, which was run by the Solberg Kristofferson PSRX Volkswagen World RX Factory Team.
Spearheading the team would be team owners Norway’s Petter Solberg - the 2014 and 2015 World RX champion - and Ekström’s compatriot Johan Kristofferson. What followed was a level of domination never seen before in the history of the sport.
Now with factory backing from Audi Sport, Ekström kicked off his title defence in 2017 in style with three consecutive victories from the first three rounds of the season. Yet as the Volkswagen/Kristofferson package gained momentum, the pairing took seven victories from nine victories and claimed the title with 316 points. Ekström scored 255 points with one more victory at Hockenheim later in the year and finished runner-up in the standings.
The following season, Ekström once again finished second in the standings again on 248 points to Kristofferson’s 341. Compared to his compatriot’s 11 victories from a 12 race season, Ekström’s best results of the year were four runner-up spots.
In what was EKS’ final year of competition with Audi backing, I ask Ekström if he enjoyed what was his final full season in World Rallycross.
“Hmm, not so much,” he laughs. “Apart from driving, there was very little to enjoy in World Rallycross at that time. I remember the first time Volkswagen competed as a factory team in the world championship. On that weekend, they ordered and consumed more tyres and fuel than all the other teams had done during the previous season. Don’t get me wrong though, I really respect what Volkswagen achieved in World Rallycross and if they rang me and said “hey, do you want to run the team and drive the car on our money and resources?” then I would also have said “yeah, of course!”
Another “Eki-ism” follows, and the Swede - now in full-flow - draws compares the 2017 and 2018 World Rallycross Championship seasons with heading into battle.
“Let’s put it like this, when you go to war, it’s up to everyone involved to find the equipment to win, but with the enormous resources that Volkswagen Motorsport had and the fact that World Rallycross was their sole motorsport activity, nobody, even us alongside Audi - who was splitting its motorsport resources with its DTM and Formula e programmes - stood a chance. What I’m trying to say is, is that when the resources are split unevenly across everyone involved, then of course the sport will get boring.”
However, he insists that it was not being able to compete with the might of the Kristofferson/Volkswagen juggernaut that led to Ekström withdrawing the team from the World Rallycross Championship at the end of 2018.
Audi confirmed it would be pulling its manufacturer support from EKS for the following season, and Ekström’s long-time partner Red Bull was also committed to the Peugeot Hansen team who still had factory backing at the time Ingolstadt made its announcement.
“Without Audi support from the end of 2018, I realised that my chance of success had disappeared for some time. Red Bull were with Peugeot and we - EKS as a private team - didn’t really have the resources to compete anymore. I didn’t have anything really competitive to sell anymore and I didn’t feel comfortable with doing that. Audi supported us in World Rallycross in 2017 and 2018 with a view to showcasing their electric e-tron technologies when we made the shift to the electric future. When it was decided that it wouldn’t happen, I fully understood why they took that course of action.”
Following these heartfelt-yet-logical opinions, it begs the question: how does Mattias Ekström - a race driver who with 10 victories to-date, is the second most successful World Rallycross driver ever – feel about Audi’s factory withdrawal from World Rallycross?
“Audi was my motorsport family in DTM and Rallycross for 17 years and they made me the person I am today, so of course I am grateful for everything they did for me!” he says The bottom line is - and a lot of people forget this - motorsport is just a marketing platform. If it doesn’t suit a car manufacturer’s current agenda, they will just withdraw or not do it.
“But if I look back on the EKS days, they were great,” he recalls with a fondness. “I like to think that I brought some DTM-style standards to the team by always making our garage look clean and tidy and engaging the fans. It was also very cool to create the black and white EKS logo and essentially build what was my dream team: we had branded flight cases, really nice teamwear, a nice team kitchen with a great chef, a very cool media team, so yeah - these were all things I really enjoyed.
“And what can I say about the cars? They are still a hoot to drive! By far the Audi S1 EKS RX is the most enjoyable race car I have ever driven not just in my career, but on the planet! It’s very powerful with a short-wheelbase, very agile and it has a lot of grip! You can jump, you can drift, you can do anything you want with it!”
So, who was his toughest rival at EKS as a driver? Looking back on his time behind the wheel, Ekström is full of praise for former team-mates Norway’s Andreas Bakkerud, Finn Toomas ‘Topi’ Heikkinen – both World Rallycross vice-champions and race winners – and 2017 WRC-2 title winner, fellow Swede Pontus Tidemand.
“I would put it like this,” he reflects. “Andreas as an all-round package, Topi – especially at starts - was a machine, and on pure lap-time, I would say Pontus.”
Despite the drubbing that Johan Kristofferson and the Volkswagen Polo R gave the World Rallycross field in 2017 and 2018, Ekström does not cite Kristofferson as his biggest rival throughout his World RX career.
The biggest rival of Ekström’s rallycross career was Petter Solberg - who along with being the first double World RX champion, also won the 2003 World Rally Championship with Subaru. The inter-Nordic rivalry began at the German round of the 2014 World RX championship at Buxtehude when Solberg edged Ekström by 0.005 seconds (around 5 millimetres) for the victory - one of the closest winning margins in motorsport history.
The competition between the two drivers reached a boiling point at Lohéac, France, during Ekström’s 2016 championship-winning year. Fast-forward three rounds later to the Latvian round of the championship in Riga, and the title battle spilled over.
In 2016, Solberg was on the hunt for his third consecutive World RX title. Meanwhile, Ekström was on the hunt for his first after a strong 2015 where he finished fifth in the title standings with one victory at his home event in Höljes, Sweden.
Throughout the season, both Scandinavians had been taking points off each other with Ekström enjoying the stronger start of the two after taking three victories from the opening four rounds of the year. Despite having only won the season opener, Solberg was marginally leading the championship going into the French round of the championship on 161 points to Ekström’s 157.
“I have to say that the turning point in our competitive relationship came at Lohéac,” Ekström explains. In the semi-final of the event, I got a puncture on the front-left and I just wanted to drive slower to save the car. Then at the corner of the last lap, Petter hit my rear bumper and shoved me wide.”
The incident between the two which took place three rounds later in Riga is something Ekström felt strongly about. Heading into the event in the Latvian capital, the Swede was 10 points ahead of the Norwegian after taking a commanding victory at the previous event in Barcelona.
For Solberg to keep his fading championship hopes alive, he needed to win Latvia. Badly.
In the second qualifying heat of the event, the Swede passed the Norwegian’s Citroën going into Turn 4 of the tight Bikierniki circuit. As-per Lohéac, Solberg’s black DS3 tapped the rear of the Red Bull-liveried Audi, which ended up going sideways into the guardrail. In what is considered to be one of the major flashpoints of the 2016 World RX season, Solberg was black-flagged and disqualified from the qualifying round. In an act of protest, the even Norwegian threatened to withdraw his privately entered PSRX team entirely from the event.
“Do I think disqualifying Petter was the right thing to do?” Ekström asks rhetorically. “Yes, I think it was at the time, but I can honestly say that whilst racing against him, these were the only two things that I think were a little bit cheeky. Otherwise, our competitive relationship was 100 percent respectful otherwise. I really enjoyed racing against Petter.”
As the conversation draws to a close, Ekström is keen to point out 21-year-old Lithuanian Rokas Baciuška as a future talent in World Rallycross. When the 2020 World RX season begins in Höljes on August 20th, Baciuška will be driving the newly-developed Renault Clio RX for the UNKORRUPTED team in his first full year.
“In terms of who has impressed me the most out of all the young drivers, then it’s Rokas for sure,” Ekström reveals. “I really see the eye of the tiger in him, because he’s always ready for a fight - the pace he showed in the few outings he had last year was also amazing. He also came to the EKS driving academy in Sweden this winter and I noticed that he works really hard. I like him a lot.”
As for Ekström, what’s next? Now aged 41, he is showing no sign of letting up and going against the “Go Hard or Go Home” motto he has used throughout his years as a professional race driver.
“I’m very excited to be part of the journey with CUPRA, because that’s another chapter to write in my career. As for World Rallycross? Will I come back?” he grins impishly. Who knows yet?!”
If he does though, the FIA World Rallycross Championship will be an EKStremely better series for it, electric power or not.