Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky is at the top of her game right now, leading the Extreme E standings alongside Rosberg X Racing team-mate Johan Kristoffersson and dipping her toe in more off-road activities around the world including last weekend’s Rally Jameel.
But it hasn’t always been this way. For many years as a young child, the idea of pursuing a career in motorsport was frankly the last thing on her mind.
With rallying and off-road motorsport firmly ingrained in the family history, you’d think the career trajectory was straight-forward. Both of Åhlin-Kottulinsky’s parents, Susanne Kottulinsky and Jerry Åhlin, were rally drivers in their heyday, brother Fredrik Åhlin a past British and European Rally Championship frontrunner and grandfather Freddy Kottulinsky is the only Swede to have ever won the Paris-Dakar Rally.
But perhaps there is substance to the expression “too much of a good thing”. For a young Mikaela, there were plenty of sports other than racing to fill her time.
“Growing up in Karlstad, it was hard not to get into motorsport,” Åhlin-Kottulinsky tells DirtFish.
“There’s this whole motorsport atmosphere in the city, especially with my family, but I really didn’t like it at first.”
Instead of cars, Åhlin-Kottulinsky took to almost every sport imaginable. Soccer, floorball, gymnastics and dancing took precedence, and it was only when she turned 12 that racing became something of interest.
And even that entry into go-karting seemed to go against the run of play as far as Åhlin-Kottulinsky’s youth was concerned. After all, her first exposure to four wheels and an engine didn’t exactly go to plan.
Looking at new challenges is a bit like jumping off a cliff and seeing if I can fly or not. That’s what Extreme E has been like and every event in that series.Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky
“I don’t remember how it came about that I tested a go-kart [for the first time] but I did; I actually drove one at the age of six, but I crashed!” she explains.
“I couldn’t reach the pedals, so my dad put some wooden pieces before the pedals to help me brake and I was just about to turn and then I spun but the kart didn’t stop so I ran into, like, a light pole!”
Despite a fairly inauspicious start, the young Mikaela wasn’t put off and took to go-karting racing properly before her teens, eventually taking part in the FIA’s Women in Motorsport shootout which gave her a valuable step-up into car racing.
For someone with as much motorsport heritage in her family roots, many would have thought racing was an inevitability for Åhlin-Kottulinsky.
And while the family passion helped whet the appetite, the fact Åhlin-Kottulinsky is still racing and more driven than ever is a result of her own love for the sport.
“Of course, I was influenced by my family when I was young,” admits Åhlin-Kottulinsky. “I think there would be no chance for me to discover motorsport if it hadn’t been for my parents, but it was still a choice which came from my side.
“That’s what keeps me going and pushing now, because it is a passion that I have and not something I have been forced into doing.”
Åhlin-Kottulinsky and her brother tried many sports as children which Mikaela says was “probably a choice by our parents to not push us into motorsport”. Between the two, almost every sport was fair game…except for one.
“I wasn’t allowed to try ice hockey; I don’t know why!” says Åhlin-Kottulinsky.
“My brother did it, but my dad said ‘no, you’re not doing it’. I did everything, swimming, golf, gymnastics, dancing, but not hockey.
“I guess they wanted to show us that there were so many other activities to choose from, but in the end we both found motorsport.”
Although the career journey followed a distinctively similar path to her brother and parents, Åhlin-Kottulinsky pursued circuit racing, instead of the loose stuff of rallying.
Already a successful karter, Åhlin-Kottulinsky quickly realized her talent on the sealed surface and used the Women in Motorsport scheme to act as a launchpad for future opportunities in GT racing and touring cars.
Up until then, her parents had helped fund her racing but there came a time, like with most drivers, when that support had to stop.
For Åhlin-Kottulinsky, it was time to get to work to find sponsors to allow herself to continue racing on some of the world’s most iconic circuits.
“I realized that in go-karting ‘OK, I am quick on circuits and that’s what I want to do’, although I did the ice driving every winter, I never wanted to do rallying; I don’t know why,” she says.
“However, when I did a little bit of rallycross in 2014, I loved it and I got a pretty big sponsor from that period which helped me a lot.
I didn’t think of it as a first female win, from my side it was my first win. But as I am getting older, it is starting to sink in that these wins actually do mean something for other younger girlsMikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky on her first race victories
“My parents said to me in around 2013 that they wouldn’t be able to continue supporting me financially in racing and that I needed to find my own sponsors if I wanted to continue.
“Thankfully, I found someone who told me that if I chose rallycross, he wouldn’t sponsor me, so I had to choose, and it was circuit racing in the end.”
That move proved astute as Åhlin-Kottulinsky achieved a number of firsts in various categories.
Starting with a move to Germany, Åhlin-Kottulinsky became the first female driver to win a race in the ultra-competitive VW Scirocco Cup at the Norisring circuit. Then came the step up to tin tops in the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship in 2017, with PWR Racing – as part of the Junior Team – run by Daniel Haglöf.
“There have been a lot of people along the road who have helped me keep the dream alive and allowed me to race,” says Åhlin-Kottulinsky.
“Without Audi Sweden, I wouldn’t have made it into STCC. But I wasn’t even thinking about doing STCC; the plan was to try and find a drive in the DTM so when that didn’t happen, I was like: ‘oh well, let’s see what happens here’.”
That first year was a real learning curve for Åhlin-Kottulinsky who, unlike her team-mates, was driving an Audi RS 3 LMS rather than the sleeker, shorter wheelbase Seat León Cupras that were far more suitable for the tight and twisty circuits of Sweden.
Her partial season in 2017 resulted in just a handful of points, but the biggest damage was towards the end of the year, when her career lay at something of a crossroads.
“I knew it was going to be tough, but that first year was really, really tough. A lot more than I thought it would be. And not a lot of people know this, but after 2017, I was pretty close to stopping motorsport completely.
“I had no funding, and I didn’t know what to do. But then PWR Racing contacted me again and asked me to join their main team for 2018. And if I hadn’t had that offer, I’m pretty sure I would not be racing today.”
Had Åhlin-Kottulinsky not made the grid that year, perhaps the STCC would still be waiting for its first female winner of a race, a feat she managed in the reversed-grid second race at Gelleråsen circuit, coincidentally the closest event to her hometown Karlstad.
A year later, she became the first female driver to lead the points standings after taking pole position and victory in the opening race of the season at Knutstorp before going on to finishing second in the championship, a feat repeated last season as well.
Much has been celebrated about the success of women in motorsport, and rightly so. But what does Åhlin-Kottulinsky think about these records herself?
“My first win meant a lot to me personally,” she says. “I didn’t think of it as a first female win, from my side it was my first win. My first victory in Scirocco Cup, my first victory in STCC, but as I am getting older, it is starting to sink in that these wins actually do mean something for other younger girls.
“But I strive to be the best driver I can be and I like to challenge myself. Looking at new challenges is a bit like jumping off a cliff and seeing if I can fly or not. That’s what Extreme E has been like and every event in that series.”
And that brings us nicely up to the present day, where Åhlin-Kottulinsky finds herself at the top of the standings alongside team-mate and fellow Swede Kristoffersson.
The pair, who have spent the last few seasons as staunch rivals in touring cars, are now two of the most successful drivers in the all-electric off-road series.
Kristoffersson is the defending champion while Åhlin-Kottulinsky, a JBXE driver last season, has more podiums than any other driver in the field.
“The thing I love about Extreme E is that both the male and female driver has to perform, otherwise it doesn’t work. There are some racing teams that give girls a good drive with good opportunities but maybe not the best. But in Extreme E, it has to be equal opportunities otherwise the team doesn’t do well.
“With Rosberg X Racing, they are really pushing all they can for me to be the best driver I can be and to develop as much as possible.
“And as far as exposure, more and more women are being seen around the world and people are getting to know us, which is amazing.
“At the last round of 2021 in the UK, the girls really showed what they can do, when you compare the first race and the final, because there was a big difference between the guys and the girls at first.”
While Extreme E was the first proper off-road experience for Åhlin-Kottulinsky, it certainly isn’t the last, with more rallycross on the horizon as well as rallying.
Having contested three rounds of the World Rallycross Championship in 2014 – Höljes, Istanbul and Franciacorta – in RX2, Åhlin-Kottulinsky has her sights set on Nitro Rallycross in the United States before long, following a one-off outing in the SSV Can-Am class in Florida last season.
Additionally, she’s also open to more stage rallying, having already scored a win on the all-female Rally Jameel in Saudi Arabia last week.
Whatever avenue Åhlin-Kottulinsky chooses to journey down in the future, you can be sure that passion and drive will never falter. It’s in the blood, you see.