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Mon 30 Jan 2023

Ekström clinches ‘emotional’ fourth Race Of Champions crown

Mattias Ekström showcased all of the skills that made him FIA World Rallycross Champion in 2016 to claim a record-equalling fourth career victory in the annual Race Of Champions (ROC) on home soil at Pite Havsbad yesterday (29 January).

Mattias Ekström showcased all of the skills that made him FIA World Rallycross Champion in 2016 to claim a record-equalling fourth career victory in the annual Race Of Champions (ROC) on home soil at Pite Havsbad yesterday (29 January).

On the snow and ice of the frozen Baltic Sea, barely 100 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, 18 of the sport’s greatest drivers gathered from a range of disciplines, including competitors of the calibre of Mika Häkkinen, Sébastien Loeb and Petter Solberg – multiple World Champions all – ‘Mr. Le Mans’ Tom Kristensen and ten-time grand prix-winner, Valtteri Bottas.

Participants faced off in a mix of identical machinery – including the all-electric FIA RX2e Championship car, running under its official moniker ZEROID X1, as well as the new CUPRA UrbanRebel Concept – in a series of head-to-head duels.

Ekström saw off Travis Pastrana in the opening round of the knockout-style contest, before getting the better of compatriot and fellow World Rallycross Champion Johan Kristoffersson following a close quarter-final battle.

In the semi-final, it was 17-time WRC event-winner Thierry Neuville who fell prey to the Swede, setting up a winner-takes-all final against Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 reserve driver Mick Schumacher, who had defeated his own countryman – four-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel – along the way.

In a best-of-three showdown, Ekström beat his younger rival two-nil – despite a brief scare when he had to put out a fire in his car – to be crowned Champion of Champions for a record-equalling fourth time, drawing level with French rally legends Loeb and Didier Auriol.

Two of the 44-year-old’s previous ROC triumphs had been achieved against Schumacher’s father, seven-time F1 World Champion, Michael – in London in 2007 and Beijing two years later.

“The Race Of Champions has meant a lot to me in my career,” reflected Ekström. “It’s very special to have four wins, and even more special to do it in Sweden. I won my first final at the Stade de France in Paris against Sébastien Loeb, then I had two finals with Michael Schumacher, so to see Mick in the final here was very emotional for me.

“That was even more special than winning; Michael’s always been one of the guys I admire most in the sport, for his dedication, hard work and talent. We had many battles and I have only great memories with Michael from this event. Mick is such a huge talent and his time is ahead of him, so I look forward to more battles in the future.

“On the start-line in the final, I said to myself, ‘full focus until the chequered flag’, but after half a lap, something caught fire and there began to be a bit of bad smoke – that wasn’t in the plan! My co-driver wanted to stop but I was not so interested… I looked down but I kept my right foot down; I didn’t lift.

“The battle with Johan [Kristoffersson] was also special, as always. He knows as well as I do that in these conditions, you have to bring out your ‘A game’, so to beat him by a few hundredths-of-a-second was very nice. That sums up the Race Of Champions for me. I can’t wait for the next generation to join us here, but I will fight as long as I can – and as long as I seem good enough and am invited, I will be here.”

Two-time FIA World Rallycross Champion Petter Solberg and son Oliver prevailed for Team Norway in the Nations Cup competition, ending the challenge of Team Sweden’s Ekström and Kristoffersson at the semi-final stage.