Back in 2006, Mattias Ekström was ostensibly a circuit racer who did a bit of rallying on the side but, make no mistake, he was as deadly serious about the latter as he was the former. So much so, that the last time the Swede competed in the World Rally Championship he endured what he labels “one of the most devastating moments in my entire career”.
A gut-wrenching, final-day retirement on his home event, Rally Sweden, ended what had been quite simply a sensational performance that turned heads not only within his factory Škoda team but around the WRC service park.
This month, Ekström returns to the WRC. Not in Sweden – that rally fell to COVID-19 – but in the similar climate of Finnish Lapland for the second round of the 2021 season.
Ekström’s WRC story began at the tender age of just 19, even before his breakthrough title win in the Swedish Touring Car Championship that propelled him onto the global motorsport stage. Contesting the 1999 Swedish Rally in a Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 4 alongside experienced co-driver Tina Thörner, he finished an impressive 30th overall and 11th in class.
Although his father Bengt was a prolific rallycross driver in his day, he never competed in rallies, but the opportunity for Mattias to try his hand at a different kind of off-road action was too enticing to turn down.
For Ekström, at 19, you might have been forgiven for thinking the approach to his first WRC event would focus on the fun element rather than taking himself too seriously. After all, here was a guy with no experience on the loose and who had prioritized circuit racing throughout his career to date.
But it will come as little surprise to those who know Ekström that this first outing on Rally Sweden was a shrewd tactical decision to further his driving apprenticeship.
“Growing up in a motorsport family, it was easier for me to try rallying although my father didn’t do any rallying, he just did rallycross,” Ekström tells DirtFish.
“I wanted to stay sharp during the winter and that was the reason I did it in the first place. I was more or less trying to do something to get better as a driver, to push the car to the limit and get used to grip levels, because I came from a circuit background.
“[Rallying] was something I had followed for my whole career and I thought that if I can do that, I can do anything.”
After dipping his toe in the water in 1999, Ekström returned to the event the following year, again in a Lancer E4, but this time with Stefan Bergman in the co-driver’s seat. It would be the beginning of a long-term partnership between the two, which kicked off with Ekström finishing fifth in the N4 class, just over three minutes behind Jani Paasonen’s Carisma GT Evo 6.
“For 2000, I felt more confident with the limit, so it was definitely one of the better rallies for me,” explains Ekström.
“In 1999, I wanted to do something during the winter months to get more experience and to improve my driving at that time. The first year, the car wasn’t so fast on acceleration but once you get used to it, it was fast.”
Despite pitching himself against some of the biggest names in rallying at the time, Ekström admitted that his goals were high, levelling that “if goals are realistic, then they are achievable, and therefore there is a lot more pressure which comes with it”.
But if the driving came naturally to Ekström, several other areas of rallying were slightly trickier to get to grips with.
“I kind of forced myself to have limited preparation in a way, but I was happy to try it out at the time and test myself in something new,” Ekström says.
“I learned a lot about rallying then. I learned how to be strategic in what stages to push in, which ones you can’t, because some stages you can’t push 100%, some stages don’t suit you and others do. You need to see the bigger picture.
“Pacenotes in general were a shock to me in the beginning, and kind of still are now, to be honest. They are something which I personally take time to get used to, to trust. Nowadays, they are so precise, and you have to, I don’t know how to say, but you drive the s*** out of your pacenotes!”
Ekström didn’t contest the next two editions of Rally Sweden but made a comeback in 2003, having switched from a Lancer E4 to an E7 (pictured below). The upgrade paid off handsomely, as Ekström and Bergman secured their first class podium, finishing third behind future Mitsubishi factory driver Gigi Galli and class winner Kenneth Bäcklund. All three were in equal machinery, proving to Ekström that the potential was indeed there.
The following year, Ekström had purchased a Lancer E7 and duly won the N4 class at his fourth attempt, beating the likes of Stig-Olov Walfridsson and 1984 WRC Champion Stig Blomqvist in the process.
It was the first time he had entered a car he had prepared with his own team. And true to the character of Ekström, the learning process continued all the way up until the eve of the rally itself. A bizarre image quickly did the rounds of Ekström driving the shakedown stage at full speed, with a ski-box attached to the roof of his Lancer.
What was that all about?
Ekström laughs about it now: “I think it started off with a bet with someone. I don’t know exactly the details, but we were wondering about the center of gravity and the weight distribution of the car and basically how important it was on the stage.
“So, we decided to put the ski-box on the roof for the shakedown to see how far off the pace we were. And it ended up with it on top for shakedown and for the official start, and we could see that the center of gravity was quite nice but in the high-speed corners, there was more upforce rather than downforce.
“It was a little bit of fun, but we also did it for the purpose of testing out the center of gravity and the weight distribution, so it was useful to try it out. Me and my co-driver were discussing what to do and we came up with the idea of the ski-box, and I said that I wasn’t afraid to drive flat-out with it.
“I was actually surprised how similar it felt [to not having it attached] and I even thought that it would have been nice to try it out on the Fabia to make a comparison. But I think the ski-box would have been the length of the Fabia!”
Ekström rates his 2004 class win as “one of the best events, for many reasons” and it’s easy to see why. The N4 class featured the likes of Alister McRae, Toshi Arai, P-G Andersson, as well as Paasonen and Bäcklund.
The battle for supremacy raged from the off, with Ekström and Paasonen swapping fastest stage times and the lead throughout the opening day. Ekström then gapped Passonen by 17 seconds but then had to fend off Andersson, who carved almost 15s out of Ekström in three stages. Andersson subsequently fell by the wayside, leaving Bäcklund the nearest challenger by the finish, albeit just 27s in arrears of Ekström, who revelled in prevailing against his boyhood heroes.
Most people would say back then that I was not being realistic when I said I wanted to winMattias Ekström on his 2004 Rally Sweden class win
“I was so proud of that result because that was a mega achievement,” recalls Ekström.
“To compete against many of those guys like Walfridsson and Blomqvist, it was like a dream for me. I would never have believed I could have been anywhere near them in a rally.
“Yes, I also dream about winning when I go racing, that will never change, and most people would say back then that I was not being realistic when I said I wanted to win. But I’ve never liked being realistic, because when you are realistic, you put so much pressure on yourself to actually achieve it.
“I always try to set high goals: it’s like saying that I want to jump to the moon, but I end up jumping onto my bed, it’s the same sort of thing. It sounds ridiculous but it’s good to have high goals. We put as much preparation into the rally, from the mechanical side, from the pacenote side and I am glad that I was not afraid to try things like that.”
What followed next for Ekström and Bergman was something the Swede still holds close to his heart today. By the time 2005 came around, Ekström had become DTM Champion with Abt Sportsline Audi and gained further recognition in the Race of Champions held at the Stade de France in Paris.
Now equipped with a factory-run Škoda Fabia World Rally Car, Ekström was in the same class as the best of the best. Grönholm, Solberg, Loeb, Märtin, they were all there and ‘Eki’ was ready to take the fight to them. Those ambitious goals still didn’t seem too high.
“That was a really cool opportunity, and it set the tone for the two years in the Fabia, with the full Škoda factory car,” he says.
“The Mitsubishi program was cool, but it was nowhere near as cool as the Škoda WRC program. Without sounding too cocky, that was something I was mega proud about, the factory program.”
Although he recorded a top-10 finish overall in 2005, it is in fact his 2006 performance – again in a factory Škoda Fabia – that stood out the most.
He ran as high as fifth overall heading into the second day, having recorded the second-best time on the third stage, Fredriksberg, just 1.4s adrift of Galli’s Mitsubishi.
“I remember when I did that stage and I came to the finish, my initial reaction was ‘that felt very good’ but I didn’t know how good it was,” remembers Ekström.
“Then, you sit and wait for the other times to come in and back then, I didn’t really know about the running order. And then you see the result and you’re like, ‘Holy crap, there is only one driver faster than me’.
“Being faster than Loeb and Grönholm on a rally stage is something I never thought I would be able to do.”
Short on testing time pre-event, Ekström admits the team didn’t have the optimum tires for the conditions and duly fell down the order slightly on Saturday, though he ended the day back up in fifth. He also elected to save some tires for the final day, using them to attack his favorite stage, Lesjöfors.
He had planned one final surge to move back up the standings, but a misjudgement on a blind hump sent him into one of Sweden’s notorious snowbanks, ending his chances of a top-five finish.
“I made such a stupid mistake in my pacenotes,” says Ekström, still dejected.
“It was on a little hump in the road, not a jump, but a hump. So, when I came there, it bottomed out on the sump guard when I left-foot braked and I ended up in the snowbank.
“It was one of the most devastating moments in my entire career because I felt until that moment, that I had done something I was so proud of and then it ended in the blink of a second.
“It took me a long time to get over the actually, years in fact. And normally, I am a guy who gets over things fast, but that one took forever.”
It’s hard to get your head around that last statement, isn’t it? Ekström won another DTM title in 2007 and then was crowned World Rallycross Champion in 2016, but it is the missed opportunity of losing a top-five result in the WRC that has stayed with him all these years.
Not that he hasn’t learned from his disappointment. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“That’s when I learned that you have to be best buddies with the limit of a car. It’s like when you’re asked if you have any friends, and you say, ‘Ah, I don’t have too many’,” he says.
“OK, who do you want to be friends with? I want to be friends with the limit of a rally car, because it is such a fine line between driving fast and crashing. If you’re friends with it, you are winning, but if you go slightly over the limit, that’s it finished for you.
“It’s like a completely different sport. In Formula 1, when you go over the limit in these parking lots they race at now, you can get away with it. In rallying, you could be in the trees and it’s all over.”
It may have been almost 15 years since his last WRC appearance, but Ekström isn’t as out of practice as you would think. He competed on Rally Sweden Lockdown last year and his rallycross exploits in 2020 are proof, as if any is needed, that the competitive juices on the loose surfaces remain.
The challenge on the Arctic is, however, steep with the likes of Emil Lindholm, fellow World Rallycross Champion Johan Kristoffersson, Eerik Pietarinen and Teemu Asunmaa all vying for victory in the WRC3 class.
But one thing is clear: that fighting spirit Ekström seems to have been born with will be on show for all to see once more as the rallying world heads to Lapland.