AN EKSTR-EMELY GOOD CAREER CHANGES TACK
Mattias Ekstrom was a talisman of the DTM with Audi. Then he suddenly gave it up to focus on his World Rallycross team
While the opening salvos of the 2018 DTM season were fired at Hockenheim back in May, it was unusual to have Mattias Ekstrom down in 17th and 16th in the two races – and for it not to matter. No, he wasn’t “saving the environment” like he claimed he was when he turned his engine off at the Red Bull Ring in 2011 after becoming frustrated at running 16th. Instead, this was a touring car career farewell for the Audi hero.
“You spend so many years somewhere,” he says of his exit to concentrate on his World Rallycross Championship exploits as a team boss and driver. “On the one side it’s hard, on the other side it’s also the end of a chapter and it always starts a new one. In some ways, I don’t miss the DTM. It’s strange but that’s how it is – I feel like I achieved a lot, we won some races, two championships. Something I’m proud of is the amount of podiums, and also I feel I have entertained the people well over the years.”
But don’t mistake that for a lack of interest in the DTM. In the space of nearly an hour discussing his career, the Hockenheim farewell and his WRX hopes, Ekstrom makes a point of talking about the DTM’S future, especially the post-2018 era once
Mercedes has gone. “I think it is difficult to see in my world how DTM can go so far without Mercedes,” he says. “In my opinion, DTM, in the beginning, was Mercedes. I struggle to see a DTM without Mercedes getting to the same standing.”
Ekstrom is also unusual in that he pits himself against the prevailing opinion on one of the DTM’S biggest talking points. Ahead of the 2018 season, the series ended its costly aerodynamic war and mandated a common aero package across Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Audi, which had spent vast sums in finding an aerodynamic advantage – winning it the manufacturers’ and drivers’ (with Rene Rast) titles in ’17 – has now dropped to third in the pecking order. It is the development war-averse Mercedes that has gained the most.
While many praise the wholesale change for putting more into the hands of the drivers, Ekstrom does not agree. “For me, it’s peanuts difference to last year,” he says. Ever the master of the short-but-blunt statements, when asked to expand on this, he says: “I think it’s never easy to win. But, frankly and honestly, the cars are underpowered, overdownforced, overtyred.
“You understand what I’m saying so you can write it in a sensible way? So, too-good tyres, too much aero, too little engine. I did NASCAR [in 2010 at Sonoma and Richmond] and it’s overengined, undertyred and an underdownforced car. An RX car is undertyred, underaeroed, overmechanical, or neutral mechanical, and overpowered. So the DTM formula, I think it’s not healthy.”
That’s Ekstrom’s first mention of WRX during our encounter. He describes the decision to set up the EKS WRX team in his native Sweden back in 2014 as “full-circle”, having grown up around rallycross as a child. His father Bengt competed in the European Rallycross Championship, and Ekstrom Jr had a foray in a Marklund Motorsport Volkswagen Polo in ’13. In a rapid-fire growth phase, which left some sceptical that it could succeed, the
EKS team planned to enter the WRX season in ’14. In June, the first Audi build was completed and by July Ekstrom was on the top step of the podium at his home event. That was just six months after the team had moved into an empty garage in Fagersta, Sweden. A year later, Ekstrom won at Holjes again.
More success followed in 2016, when Ekstrom became the WRX champion and his team won the championship in its best year to date. The driver-owner role is something he’s now relishing as he moves into the next phase of his career. “I think that the knowledge as a driver is such a small part of the operations of a racing programme,” he explains. “When you see what everyone else does, that has a bigger influence on a daily basis, but from the sporting side the driver has a big part. Running the team and driving it, you are part of every single process, which is awesome.”
Yet consider his DTM form alongside his WRX commitments. In 2015, at the two-thirds mark of the season, Ekstrom led eventual champion Pascal Wehrlein by six points in the standings before he fell away from the crown, enduring a run of four races with just one point. A year later, he skipped the final round of the DTM season at Hockenheim, while fifth in the points, to secure his WRX crown. But he bristles at suggestions that his WRX commitments have impacted his DTM title bids – he was a close second last year.
“I would say that has really zero influence when it comes to this,” he says. “I managed to squeeze out the performance, which I am happy for and it wouldn’t change much. Sorry to say, but it was not the reason I was not performing – it would have been the same.”
While this may come across as covering over the cracks, the fact that his Audi team-mate and former rival Jamie Green was surprised by Ekstrom’s exit speaks volumes. “Yeah, it’s a bit strange,” says Green. “At first when I heard that he was stopping over the winter time I was surprised, because I would have thought he would have said something last year.
“So for him, I think he was so focused on last season and when he calmed down and it was over – obviously he was gunning for the championship and he didn’t get it – he decided it was the right time to stop. It was a surprise – I didn’t see it coming at the time.”
But that exit may not have happened had Ekstrom and EKS not secured its WRX future going into 2018. The Audi-backed project needed more support from the manufacturer for it to continue into this season. Ekstrom pursued some peculiar strategies to attract the attention of the ‘mothership’ – for instance, making an announcement during the Loheac WRX round in 2017 that four of the team’s five Audi S1 Supercar chassis were fore sale.
There were further fears over the programme’s future when WRX event winner Reinis Nitiss parted company with the team on the eve of Ekstrom’s 2018 press conference. Once again, he stressed how essential Audi backing was.
“WHEN I HEARD HE WAS STOPPING I WAS SURPRISED. I DIDN’T SEE IT COMING AT THE TIME” JAMIE GREEN
Finally, Audi came through with a revised S1, featuring significant aerodynamic development, plus Andreas Bakkerud was added to the driver roster. Audi’s goodwill had already extended to it granting permission for Ekstrom to exit the DTM for the WRX, rather than forcing him to respect his DTM contract.
He plays down the perilousness of the situation, but admits Audi’s support was key. “I appreciate the chance [from Audi to leave DTM and focus on WRX] and I am happy to be here,” he says. “It’s massive [the support from Audi in order] to stay competitive. Now, for the time being, we are in the game and I can’t see that we have a big advantage, but at least we are in the mix. So a lot of thanks to Audi. The cooperation with them was key.”
The toll of combining two championships was also a price he was no longer willing to pay. When asked why he wanted to focus on WRX, he says: “Many things. But it takes a lot of energy and I also felt being on the road all the time. Even if I am only home a couple more weekends they mean a lot to me. I can have some more time with family and maybe a couple of more weekends in the sun.
Just a little bit less to do is nice.”
As the man himself says, the DTM chapter has now closed. But try telling that to DTM boss Gerhard Berger. “He’s [Ekstrom] a good guy, great driver, good personality,” says Berger. “He will be back.”
A shame, then, that Audi Sport boss Dieter Gass pours cold water instantly on such a theory: “I think it was a well-deserved farewell from DTM. Thanks to Mattias for everything he did for Audi over the past 17 years. He has taken his choice and he is doing the WRX, which he enjoys a lot as well. So, I think we take it as it is that his involvement has ended and things won’t change.”
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