Mattias Ekström is an FIA World Rallycross Champion, a two-time DTM champion and a three-time winner of the Race of Champions. We drove with him around Kyalami, in an Audi R8, at night and asked him some questions along the way.
You started World Rallycross (RX) with your own team before getting official support from Audi. What attracted you to the discipline?
I loved that the cars are really, really fast. The Quattro S1 has 450kW and 900Nm and can drive on gravel and tar, and it has a short wheelbase, making it so much fun to drive. The regulation package really interested me.
Do you think compact stadium events like RX are the future and that they might replace traditional forms of rallying one day?
I don’t think it will ever replace traditional rallying but I think these events can complement traditional rallying. If I were a promoter, I would combine the two and use Rallycross tracks for the super special stages. The stadium feeling for spectators is great but driving in the woods is also fantastic.
Can you explain some unique driving qualities needed for RX compared to a more traditional circuit racing discipline like DTM?
The main thing is you need to be a fast learner because there is little driving time and the practice sessions are extremely limited.
The jumps on the RX courses are getting bigger and bigger and there have recently been some big incidents. What are your thoughts on this element of RX?
I don’t think the jumps are too big, it is that the teams are not yet building the cars strong enough for those jumps. WRC Finland has a jump on the power stage where the cars jump 60m, very high, very long and nearly land on the flat. But their suspension is built to handle that. Rallycross cars are built more like circuit racing cars so the cars are not really developed for jumping. Those big jumps are super exciting and I think each track should have one but then the cars need to be adapted. Scott Speed recently had a bad landing and hurt his back. If the regulations prescribed a minimum ride height we could solve the problem because then guys would be more confident hitting the jumps.
Has traditional rallying attracted you?
For sure, I actually did a rally last weekend. I grew up in the woods of Sweden and am a huge rally fan, it is pretty difficult to get the funding right but I am a big rally guy.
You have dabbled in Formula E, what was your involvement?
Very limited. I am not really a Formula or Single-seater guy, I don’t think I ever will be. Formula E came at the time when vehicle manufacturers were looking for a way to promote their electric vehicles and I am not sure how long it will survive.
Do you think a series like Formula E will be as popular with crowds given its lack of noise?
I’m an old-school guy. For me, the most spectacular cars are the ones with the best sound. Electric cars sound different and I am probably too old to enjoy these cars as the new generation does, even though the problem can be partly solved with the use of sound generators. I love the old sounds of an Audi S1 or a BMW M3 or a Ford Escort. For me, those are iconic sounds from motorsport.
You were the first Scandinavian to compete in Nascar. What was it like?
It was a fantastic experience. It was probably the second most enjoyable time of my life when I was in the USA with Red Bull driving the Nascar. Many people think driving a Nascar is easy but I learnt a lot when I was there and I respect the guys a lot more now. I would have loved to have another go, I have definitely driven too little Nascar in my career.
The cars are high-tech and the way they tune and run them is on the same level as Formula One. They know what they’re doing and fans think it is easy but everything is calculated and taken into account in order to get the edge over the competition.
Who was your biggest competitor throughout your career?
In DTM I had many but probably Gary Paffett; and in Rallycross, probably Petter Solberg. Everyone has their own style but the battles with Gary throughout the years were really great.
What is your advice for young drivers trying to make a name for themselves in motorsport?
You need to decide whether you want to compete in motorsport as a hobby or as a profession. If you want to be a professional driver, you need to understand what professional motorsport is all about, which is a lot of marketing activity for car manufacturers. It is very commercial because it is expensive. Being a professional driver you need to run yourself like a business and have a wide skill set including fitness, technical knowledge, driving, social media, marketing and finances. You need to be a complete person to make it all the way to the top. If you do it as a hobby, with a go-kart or a track-day car, you can enjoy motorsport in a fantastic way, for a much lower price.
Looking back on your career, do you have a favourite race car and why?
The Audi S1 Rallycross car in which I won the World Championship is definitely my favourite as it was the most enjoyable to drive.
You have been popular due to being outspoken but these days, drivers across all disciplines only say what they are told to say. Do you think this is a problem?
I feel drivers need to respect media and fans; if you have no personality you can become boring. If you are really good once you put your helmet on, you can entertain people in that way. I do feel many drivers are too strategic when they are racing and too politically correct when they are answering questions and yes, I think that is boring.
These characters are taking the easy route and they need to remember it is all about the fans so the day you stop taking care of the fans is the day you stop taking care of yourself. I love it when people are outspoken and I love to hear opinions or when there is some conflict; it creates good racing when the elbows are out. People become interested because of the interesting characters, which make the sport.
If you could only drive one car for the rest of your life what would it be?
A Volkswagen Multivan because I can load up my kids and all the bikes and travel across Europe.