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

Autosport (UK) - - CON­TENTS - TOM ERRING­TON

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.”

WRX for­mula is more to Ek­strom’s taste than DTM

2007 DTM ti­tle race was most open in years

Ek­strom made his DTM de­but with Abt Audi in 2001

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