Rallying and rallycross have obvious affinity, and not just by name. It’s therefore no coincidence that the first world champion in rallycross was also a world champion in rallying: Petter Solberg.
But while the shift from rallying to rallycross has proved popular – see Solberg, Sébastien Loeb, Marcus Grönholm, Chris Atkinson, Patrik Sandell and Gigi Galli as just some drivers who made the switch – heading in the opposite direction, from rallycross to rallying, is a path less trodden.
That didn’t stop Johan Kristoffersson or Mattias Ekström giving it a go on last weekend’s Arctic Rally Finland however, the second round of the World Rally Championship. It wasn’t a debut for either by any means, as both Swedes have some solid experience in rally cars.
Kristoffersson has four Rally Sweden starts from the last five years, and a WRC2 podium on Rally Finland. Ekström meanwhile has done six rallies in the last couple of years and of course finished a standout 10th overall on Rally Sweden 2005 in a Škoda Fabia WRC.
The two rallycross champions entered the WRC3 class last weekend: Kristoffersson piloting a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 and Ekström a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.
Again, these were familiar rides to them both, but Arctic Rally Finland was an entirely new proposition.
Even those with considerably more rallying experience and knowledge of Lapland were out of their comfort zone.
“It’s the rally I’ve done the most, this year was my seventh Arctic Rally so actually it’s pretty familiar but the conditions we faced were not that familiar,” class rival Emil Lindholm told DirtFish.
“All the gravel and all the ruts and stuff that was a different challenge [and the] abnormally warm temperatures.
“It’s somehow ironic that WRC has had some issues with the one and only winter event in the previous years and now everyone was completely sure that this would be the winter rally and then we had plus degrees.
“Not a big deal to be honest but the biggest thing is that we were like the 25th car on the road because all the WRC2 runners also in between WRC and us so actually the roads were quite destroyed already on the first loop.”
All in all, this wasn’t really like anything Kristoffersson or Ekström had experienced.
“I have experience from previous years from rally now, but I think I was more well prepared for ’19 or ’20,” Kristoffersson tells DirtFish.
“I only did 150km of testing then just jumped straight into the rally and started to make pacenotes again and all this stuff. New rally I’ve never been to before and new roads and all this stuff, so this time was very, very difficult.”
Ekström’s recent rallying experience extends to some Swedish championship rallies, and his latest off-road adventure was the Dakar Rally where he frequently traveled the entire competitive distance of Arctic Rally Finland just to make it to the start of one of the Saudi Arabian rally-raid stages.
“It was a pretty big difference I must say, but again it’s always great to have the big differences,” he says. “I’m happy to say that the difference was pretty big.
“I think up here the roads are famous for being super-fast which is very nice,” Ekström adds, comparing the Finnish roads to those in Sweden.
“But then secondly I think it’s fair to say, WRC rallies, the lines, the ruts, the competition is different.
“If you do Swedish championship roads, they can also be very cool, but WRC is WRC, man!
“I think being fair not much has changed,” Ekström says when asked how much the WRC has changed since his last appearance in 2006.
“The only thing I can sniff, and feel is the efforts in terms of pacenotes, video recce; that has changed a bit I felt. People have more of a circuit racing mentality when it comes to data analyzing and all that.
— Mattias Ekström (@mattiasekstroem) February 24, 2021
“If it is for the better, I’m not sure really what to say but at least it has changed.”
It wasn’t necessarily the smoothest return to the WRC after over a decade away for Ekström however, who got stuck in a snowbank on the pre-event recce in his mum’s Audi!
“I would have loved to say it was the sixth gear, a really cool accident but it was more embarrassing than cool,” he laughs.
“It was more or less straight being perfectly fine. It was out of a long corner and I was just not focused for a millisecond, taking the racing line out of the corner and then the snow plough was over the edge and because of that the wheel just drops over the edge and the snowbank was soft and then it ended up I was in the ditch.”
How did mama Ekström react?
“She knows me, so she was just laughing,” Mattias responds.
Unfortunately for Ekström though, he made another mistake on the shakedown stage as he got his Fabia stuck on the same corner Thierry Neuville made an error on. He told DirtFish it was a pacenote mistake that led to his misdemeanor.
But the rally itself went much better. Ekström and co-driver Emil Bergkvist – the 2018 Junior WRC Champion – scooped fifth in WRC3 and 10th in the overall Rally2 class, setting a top-three WRC3 stage time along the way.
“I was happy with the pace we had on Saturday and Sunday and to finish P5 in WRC3 I think it’s OK,” he admits. “You can argue it should have been better, yes of course [but] not much to complain about.
“I was there to enjoy and have fun by myself. Like always it’s nice to come home with some silverware and having a good time, but again it’s not really the end of the world if it doesn’t happen.
“We were trying to do our best no doubt but again I think that comes with your own expectations and all that. In my world you can say whatever you want but it is always fun to be competitive.
“Emil Lindholm and all the guys, they are famous for being fast, so it’s no bulls***. They are just fast, and they get on with it.”
Ekström’s description of Lindholm proved accurate as the 24-year-old Finn broke into a 12s lead after three of 10 stages. It would all unravel on SS4 Kaihuavaara however as Lindholm got it wrong, proving just how hard the conditions were.
“In the beginning there’s like a super narrow section, you can only fit one car through there, and in a place where there was a tree on the outside, I leaned on the snowbank a little bit,” Lindholm explained.
“A little too much in other words, and it pulled the front end in also and it just hit a tree spot on. The radiator and everything was gone, not massive damage but anyhow too much to continue.”
Kristoffersson came unstuck on the same test. He and Patrik Barth had been fourth in WRC3, 39s up the road from Ekström before they too got it wrong.
“It was a short corner into a short corner over a small jump-ish crest, exactly the same corner where [Ott] Tänak had his moment,” Kristoffersson says with his trademark detail.
“The mistakes of the champions, but I was the rallycross champion not the rally champion, and I didn’t escape!
“It was as simple as that, slow speed, but I just hit the bank with the rear end and it just pulled the front in. That’s how it was, not very spectacular. I pulled the front back in similar to like [Sébastien] Ogier did but at lower speed and I didn’t get stuck that deep into the bank.”
The end result was 10th in WRC3 and 17th in the Rally2 class; a far cry from the ultimate potential Kristoffersson has within him as a rally driver.
“I think I have the potential to do very, very well if I would have been able to drive a little bit more and I would’ve been able to compete with them,” Kristoffersson says.
“But without competing more than I’ve done it’s quite easy to just go to eWRC and look up the results and see when I drove a rally last time, they would quite quickly realize that I would not be any threat!
“And then of course like Esapekka [Lappi in WRC2], the pace he showed this weekend is just another league and that takes so much driving and experience and skills to be able to get to that level.
“Pace-wise, I think I was where I would like to be on SS1, SS8, SS9 and SS10,” he adds.
“That was more or less in terms of the feeling inside the car, how I attacked the corners, how I got the flow through the stage with the pacenotes and all this stuff, that felt pretty good.
“And then when I look at the times on those stages as well that is also mirroring quite quickly the feeling I have in the car. On SS3, it didn’t really feel very well, SS4 went off so back to ground zero again in confidence and then start to build up from there and yeah, then obviously it’s tricky to drive like SS2, SS6, SS7, SS8 when it gets dark, and I haven’t driven in dark since one year.
“There’s so many new things to learn and adapt and all this stuff but in terms of feeling and pace-wise I was quite happy with [stages] 1, 8, 9 and 10. And that pace would have then been enough to at least compete for a podium although there was never a target.
“I just mention it because I’m not used to going to an event without being able to fight for the trophies let’s say.”
That was a feeling echoed by Ekström when he said, “it is always fun to be competitive”. Both he and Kristoffersson are winners in touring cars (Ekström in DTM and Kristoffersson STCC) as well as of course rallycross with Kristoffersson claiming three World RX titles and Ekström one.
They will battle it out against each other in yet another new discipline later this year, Extreme E, with Kristoffersson driving for Rosberg Xtreme Racing and Ekström Abt Cupra.
There was no such rivalry on the rally stages however, as Kristoffersson explains “both of us like to compete for the trophy” which wasn’t an attainable aim last weekend given their comparative lack of experience to the frontrunners.
“I think me and Mattias had more or less the same preparations going into the rally and were more or less on the same level on that. Both me and Mattias are quite competitive persons as well but normally both of us like to compete for the trophy so I mean, when you compare and compete against each other for the world championship in rallycross it’s a different story from comparing stage times from when we are actually so far away from the quickest R5 on the stage.
“It was nice to have Mattias there, but I think none of us really looked at each other, I think both of us were looking towards the top and comparing ourselves against the quickest guys.
“It will be a different story competing against Mattias [in Extreme E], because then we are like competing straight against each other and then hopefully both of us are fighting for trophies.”
So why did these two titans of off-road motorsport decide to enter Arctic Rally Finland when they aren’t rally drivers and love to win yet felt they couldn’t ultimately compete for that honor?
“I think it’s just because it’s so different, so complex and so fun,” Ekström offers. “I think that’s the bottom line, you have to enjoy and love rally to do it. That’s it, very, very simple.”
Kristoffersson adds: “I mean rally is really, really, really nice; I really like it. It’s such a big challenge and there’s so many things for me still to learn which makes it very interesting because I feel I have so much more to learn and it’s like, I don’t know how you say it, a book that you haven’t read or so many new things I need to experience. Because of that it’s really, really fun and also, I really, really like the big challenges.
“I learned a lot and it was a very, very good experience and I’m pretty sure it will definitely help me for upcoming events with Extreme E and so on. Definitely good experience.”
The size of the challenge Kristoffersson and Ekström isn’t lost on rally regular Lindholm, however. Although Lindholm admits “you can transfer the talent” he pays testament to Kristoffersson and Ekström’s ability to switch themselves on to a new challenge so quickly.
“Both of those two guys they’re quick, they can drive cars incredibly well [but] I think their main challenge maybe is to do pacenotes and to drive from those pacenotes.
“OK I knew Johan is quick in a rally car but Mattias as well, I think he was far below a second per kilometer slower than the fastest R5s and for me that’s just crazy.
“He’s probably not doing a lot of practicing, testing or driving; just comes to the rally and is immediately on a very good pace. That’s impressive, that’s so impressive.
“It’s honestly interesting to see that someone who’s good at some other motorsport actually can also jump into a rally car.”
How would Lindholm perform if the shoe was on the other foot though? Could he compete with Kristoffersson and Ekström in a circuit or rallycross race?
“I don’t know,” he chuckles.
“I’ve done circuit racing back in the day; I was in GT Masters for a few years. But probably not. Rallycross also again comes down to car handling and being fast but it’s tricky.
“I think it’s easier to go for instance from rallying to racing than from racing to rallying because in rallying the conditions can be incredibly demanding and then you have the pacenotes. Whereas in circuit racing the environment is more controlled and you’re doing the same track over and over again.
“But for sure the competition is so fierce, it’s not easy either way.”