They say that to win the Dakar Rally, you need an experienced navigator. Someone who knows not only the cross-country discipline like the back of the hand, but the rolling dunes, sandy tracks, and the sheer randomness of rally-raid. It’s convention, a tried-and-tested practice if you will.
Experience comes in different guises of course. Some navigators have spent years in the passenger seat, while others have come from being competitors themselves. Convention says a navigator comes from one of these two molds. But for Audi’s Mattias Ekström, well… convention is just a word at the end of the day.
To prove as much, he opted to buck tradition and select 2018 Junior World Rally Champion Emil Bergkvist, a driver who was tipped to be one of the WRC’s stars of the future three years ago, as his navigator for his foray into cross-country rallying.
The pair took part in their first Dakar aboard a Yamaha side-by-side vehicle earlier this year and, while the partnership may turn a few heads stepping up to the car category, learning from scratch is all part of Ekström’s plan.
“The co-driver in this sport is very important, as everybody knows,” Ekström tells DirtFish, speaking at the public rollout of Audi’s electric RS Q e-tron. “People who know me will say, ‘Can you explain why and how?’ and I will say of course it’s very simple.
“If I would take an experienced co-driver, I know myself well enough that I would focus on something else, I would rely on them doing all that, but I also want to understand from the ground up, and when it comes to driving, it’s a big asset that Emil has, he’s a very good driver himself.
The fact that you don't have a recce is really difficult. You do one WRC rally in distance in one day, and even more sometimesEmil Bergkvist
“And when you have pacenotes, the driver watches and sees; in our car, if Emil sees that the road is flat ahead, he shouts that it’s flat and my instant reflex is to push flat even if I cannot see the road because he would not say that if he doesn’t see it, or for some reason I don’t see it.
“Emil brings a different asset to the car and his willingness to learn already in these 12 months is incredible. He has learnt a lot himself, but I’ve also learnt a lot, and if you learn together, I like that.”
If Bergkvist switching seats to take on the classic rally-raid seems strange to the outsider, it’s a feeling shared by the driver himself, who aims to put his driving experience to good use in the desert of Saudi.
“It also feels a little strange because for my whole life, the focus was to be in the WRC as a driver, but things took a different turn in the middle of 2019,” Bergkvist says. “I started to talk with Mattias a little bit. First, for fun, we thought that maybe we should do this together and then I said: ‘Why not? let’s try it!’ and here we are.
“When we were out testing [with fellow Audi navigators Lucas Cruz and Edouard Boulanger], they also explained everything to me – because in rallying, you learn how things work a lot easier because you have onboards, and you can see everything. In cross-country you cannot search for anything to learn beforehand so I have to speak to them and learn, which is the not so nice part.”
It’s not uncommon that past competitors make good navigators on the Dakar. Just ask Boulanger – the Swiss former biker who helped Stéphane Peterhansel achieve his record-extending 14th event victory in January – or South African Taye Perry, who will assist five-time bike winner Cyril Desprès in a PH Sport-run Peugeot 3008 DKR.
But that’s the difference: while Boulanger and Perry have valuable experience on these events, Bergkvist has just a handful of cross-country events in total to rely on.
“The fact that you go without recce on the route, for me this is really difficult,” says Bergkvist.
“And you also go long during the stages. I said to Mattias, ‘we do one WRC rally in one day, and even more sometimes’. It’s such a long time to keep the focus and then you have to navigate with your compass, and you have to turn where it is turning. This is quite a new thing for me.”
Ekström and Bergkvist first got in touch with each other at the end of 2019, after Bergkvist’s own ambitions took a turn for the worse that summer. They each competed on Rally Sweden Lockdown, both as drivers, but the partnership began shortly after with Ekström picking the 26-year-old as his navigator for the 2021 Dakar.
“Funnily enough, we never came across each other before, but he lives not so far away from my hometown in Sweden,” recounts Ekström. “He had quite a cool career, but it came to an end for various reasons, but I asked him if he wanted to come along and do some work, and where we started, we had no idea about doing the Dakar.
“He started to work in my company, we did the Rally Sweden Lockdown event and then one thing led to another.”
That first experience of the Dakar was the sort of learning curve Ekström thrives on, with promising pace in the X-raid-run Yamaha Lightweight Prototype combined with engine and suspension issues that forced their retirement from the competitive segment of the event.
They did, however, get to finish the rally as part of the Dakar Experience, which allows crews to pick up valuable knowledge of the route despite not being officially timed.
From then on, it was clear that Ekström and Bergvkvist would be learning the discipline together. They’ve done several rallies and Bajas this year with the X-raid team, driving both the Mini All4 Rally and the Mini JCW Buggy, taking a fifth-place finish on their first outing on the Andalucía Rally in May.
The additional experience chalked up throughout 2021 has also allowed Bergkvist to learn more about the controversial digital roadbook, introduced full-time last year for all car crews. It’s the sort of thing that puts Bergkvist on a par with the rest of the field.
“I wasn’t used to using anything before so I tried to turn it into an advantage for me, because I knew that a lot of the guys used something else,” Bergkvist explains.
“And I think [that meant] it was the right time to enter the sport. But it was quite difficult, because we have the roadbook on an iPad, and that is fixed in the car, so when the road is bumpy, the iPad is also following so it’s quite tricky.”
Bergkvist is no stranger to co-driving, having contested nearly 30 stage rallies from the secondary seat during his career, but navigation is a totally different game.
For Ekström, getting to the point where the two are capable of fighting for victory on the Dakar is a continual development curve whereby both drivers can find their feet.
To do so, Ekström believes similar personalities are a key element to advancing the partnership.
“We had been super open-minded, having fun and that’s also something I know that, if you want to get the best out of me, you need to keep me entertained, keep me in a good mood,” Ekström says.
“Motorsport is not only a job, but also a passion and you spend so much time with your co-driver that the social skills are really important. You need to be able to live with each other for the two weeks of the Dakar through thick and thin and have an understanding of each other. This, we are having a lot of fun with and let’s see how competitive we can be, time will tell.
“The key is to learn and understand in which areas of the stage navigation can be tricky. So far, I must say, we are collecting pieces of the puzzle and it’s super exciting because we are collecting many, but then again, whenever you start a rally and we’ve only run I would say, three big ones [Andalucía, Kazakhstan and Morocco] plus the Dakar, learning together brings a different attitude.”
Perhaps the biggest difference for Bergkvist in switching to cross-country – for the time being at least – is the preparation, or lack of, associated with the Dakar. But, with one edition under his belt, what will Bergkvist do differently this time around?
“From what I learnt last year, I will fill up my stomach with food, I will sleep, I will do everything I can this way, because I didn’t do that last year,” he says. “I will also train a bit. What’s different with the Dakar is that you cannot prepare the route, so I cannot do anything; in the WRC you can prepare a lot more, eat, sleep, train a bit and then I am ready!”