The next challenge

Audi motorsport great, Mattias Ekström, on the challenges of the Dakar Rally.

No stranger to the rigours of motorsport at the highest levels, the Flying Swede, Mattias Ekström, is still mindful of the challenges he and co-driver, Emil Bergkvist will face come January.

9 November, 2021

Two words best describe Mattias Ekström’s career to date – versatile and successful

When it comes to motorsport, Mattias Ekström runs no risk of being typecast. A former World Rallycross champion, two-time DTM champion and the winner of four Race of Champions titles, two words best describe Ekström’s career to date – versatile and successful.

The Swede was an Audi factory driver from 1999 to 2017 and now joins one of Audi Sport’s trio of driver teams competing in the Dakar Rally, which just might prove to be his biggest challenge yet.

He is partnered in the endeavour with fellow Swede, Emil Bergkvist, who has 10 years of experience as a rally driver under his belt, even winning the Junior World Rally Championships in 2018 and now finds himself teaming up with the very driver he most admired in his youth.

Mattias, you’re undertaking one of the toughest motorsport events on earth driving a completely new rally vehicle, in the Audi RS Q e-tron. If that’s the future, what’s your first memory of rallying and Audi?

Mattias Ekström: That would be Stig Blomqvist driving an Audi rally car in the 1980s. I was six or seven years old and Stig was a big star in Sweden. The way he mastered races had a big impact on me. Seeing how passionate all those crews were was the main reason I became a racing driver myself. I have a lot of respect for all the rally guys.

Emil Bergkvist and Mattias Ekström (right) form part of the Audi Sport Dakar assault.

What in general sets rallying apart from other motorsports? 

For me, rally is the most unique, most extreme motorsport. I think it’s also the most difficult one. For example, the roads – if there are any – are often very narrow, allowing virtually no room for error. Not only are the distances covered very great, but the ground surface and conditions can change abruptly. The equipment has to stay the course – and the team even more so. Motor racing is always a team sport and that’s true above all of rallying where you rely on your co-driver. The two of you have to have an almost symbiotic relationship.

How does Emil Bergkvistcome to be your co-driver on the Dakar assault?

Emil Bergkvist has 10 years of rally driving experience so he knows what it’s like to pilot a rally car. He signed on with my motorsport team EKS and performed incredibly well. That was reason enough for me to ask him to be my co-driver. He is young, motivated and hungry for success – all good qualities if we want a shot at a good result in the Dakar Rally.

Ekström has flown high in World Rallycross and set the standard in DTM – sometimes in the same season

Ekström takes flight in World Rallycross.
Just one of Ekström's many Audi DTM drives – RS 5 DTM.

The days are unbelievably demanding in the Dakar – you wake up in the mornings and face four-to-six-hour stages crossing super-rough terrain

What experience have you had with the Dakar?

I have driven it once. The days are unbelievably demanding – you wake up in the mornings and face four-to-six-hour stages crossing super-rough terrain. You go from having really huge stones flying around, into the mud and then over sand and dunes. And all of it is taken at high speed, so it can get really tough in places. That’s why you need a car that can handle all that. Seeing how you react under such extreme circumstances is an adventure of its own, as you swing from happiness to disappointment and back. It’s really emotional.

While the other Audi Sport driver teams have competed in the Dakar several times and claimed a number of victories, you and Emil have only participated once before. Does that mean you face a bigger challenge or maybe have an advantage?

While motorsports is all about experience, the Dakar is different every day. Over the two weeks, you never know what to expect on any given day. Without a doubt, it’s the toughest of all motorsport competitions. And from an Audi Sport perspective, the electrified powertrain will be completely new to all of us.

What do you think it will be like competing with an electric drivetrain?

I think the electric drivetrain will improve our performance, above all on the dunes. Since the electric drivetrain doesn’t have a gearbox, you don’t have to worry about shifting. At the same time, the engineers face a big challenge in ensuring that the it is immune to all the shocks and that the car can handle anything thrown at it. There’s no pit stop for quick repairs or adjustments when you’re racing through the desert.

Dakar's many jumps hold no fear for Ekström – seen here flying in rallycross.

What does this new chapter mean to you personally?

When I saw the Audi RS Q e-tron for the first time, I was really impressed. Everyone in motorsport is always focused on developing further and gaining a competitive edge. Being given the opportunity to be a part of another great chapter in the Four Rings’ racing history feels like going back to the future again.

Audi has an impressive legacy of introducing innovation that changed motorsport. When you think of how Audi influenced rallying, what comes to mind?

Before Audi developed quattro in the 1980s, four-wheel drive wasn’t really taken seriously in motorsport. But in combination with the five-cylinder engine and the car’s looks, it was totally revolutionary. I am quite sure that if Audi hadn’t been involved in rallying at that time, quattro wouldn’t have enjoyed the same levels of acceptance and success. The brand’s drive to stay one step ahead, push boundaries and leap into the unknown is probably one of the Four Rings’ greatest assets. The Dakar Rally is a prime example. 

Talking about the Dakar Rally again, do you need to be a bit crazy to take on that challenge? 

I don’t think it’s crazy to champion new ideas. When I learned about the new Audi Dakar concept, I understood that this is yet another revolution. So, I think what Audi is doing is pretty brave. And I’m sure the fans and everybody else is wondering whether Audi really can conquer Dakar with an electric drivetrain and a new concept. Nobody knows the answer yet, but Emil and I will definitely fight to the very last to get our car from the start all the way across the finish line.

Being given the opportunity to be a part of another great chapter in the Four Rings’ racing history feels like going back to the future again

Bergkvist and Ekström counting down for Dakar in January 2022.