Mattias Ekström on life, motorsport and the journey to the 2016 WRX title
On a scale of one to ten, how honest are you? If you're nearly as honest as Mattias Ekström, who tips the scales at around 11, you'll go far and you'll eventually get what you want. Along the way you'll learn a lot about yourself, about the world, and perhaps you'll even discover a few of life's little secrets. This is the conclusion that I come to after my interview with the recently crowned 2016 World Rallycross Champion.
Ekström on his way to his WRX title. Team EKSRX also claimed the team's title at the 2016 season finale.
"I don't believe it was talent that brought me to this level," Ekström tells me almost at the beginning of our conversation in the lobby of Berlin's Sheraton Hotel. He's only just landed in the city, made it to the venue in time for our interview, and within the first five minutes of our conversation, dropped a few truth bombs such as this one. Ten minutes, and a few more truths later, I stop being surprised at his honesty. Evidently, this is just who Ekström is.
"The amount of car control, or the amount of raw talent that guys like McRae had, I'd never think I had this," he says. Ekström believes that over the course of his career, instead of being naturally gifted, he's practised more and more, and tried to come up with a formula that would lead him to victory. "Trying to analyse, trying to work hard, trying to find a way which beats the talents," is how he believes he's managed to win two DTM titles, be crowned Champion of Champions at the ROC thrice, and finally win the World Rallycross title for his own EKSRX team earlier this year.
Mattias Ekström - 2016 WRX champion
This almost self-deprecating declaration can fool one into thinking that Ekström is going out of his way to be humble. But what follows is an analysis of his own strengths. His belief that his own specific skill lies in understanding how much grip the tyre has, where the maximum level of grip lies, and to then try and stay below this. "So, at really low grip levels, I think I can make really great things happen," he laughs. But it's something that he's quick to admit he's practised for years, on various types of machines whether it's his Audi S1 WRX Supercar, his everyday roadcar, a Vespa with three wheels (two at the front, one at the back), or a go-kart. "It's an endless game against myself!" Ekström declares.
And this endless game finally paid off in the world championship title that he recently claimed. Climbing out of his car in Estering, at first Ekström didn't react at all, because he didn't think that a fifth-place finish could have secured him the title. But then, by his own admission, he was reduced to an emotional little boy. After all, that long- sought title was finally his.
"It doesn't matter what you do in life," Ekström says. "The more effort you put for something, the bigger value it has." So too, then, for the rallycross title. A championship that he'd wanted to win ever since he realised it would be an FIA World Championship event - and that victory would get him to the FIA Gala. "I saw it on TV a couple of years ago. I remember looking at it and I thought 'to go there one day will be a dream, but in which category, how will it happen '" The DTM wasn't an FIA series, and he didn't think he could manage it in either rallying or in F1. Neither the World Endurance Championship, nor the WTCC attracted him. And then the FIA announced the WRX Championship for 2014. To Ekström, it seemed like it was the sort of series that would perfectly suit his skill set... And then he drove the car.
Ekström in action in the Audi S1 WRX Supercar that he loves so much
"I got really addicted to driving these cars," Ekström laughs. "Because people say cigarettes or snus is something you can get addicted to. But I tell you, to drive those cars, I really became addicted!" Ekstrom sounds almost ecstatic at the recollection of the sheer joy that the driving a rallycross supercar gave him. And so, he began setting up a team, trying to figure out whether or not it would be possible to beat rivals like Petter Solberg and the Volkswagen RX team, because the bar was slowly, but surely, being raised. But team EKSRX went all out. "We had to dig a little deeper in the pocket than we planned maybe, and I spent more of my time and money than I planned. But like I said - it is like a drug and you get addicted to it. And to come to the goal was a big dream!"
But let's rewind a little to that first title that the Swede took. Back in 2004, in his fourth season of DTM, Ekström took home the title for the Abt Sportsline team. He hadn't expected a championship that soon into his career. "The only thing I know is after I won it, it felt so empty. I did not have any plan as to what will happen if I achieve this," he says. For the first time in our conversation, the smile has left Ekström's face. You can tell that it was a tricky period in his career as a racer. "I should not say I had no goal, but [winning the title] was a life-ending target, and it came a little bit earlier than I expected."
Though he followed that up with another DTM title in 2007, perhaps it's his ROC titles - claimed in 2006, 2007 and 2009 - that mark one of the most satisfying periods of his career. And a day that he will, in his own words, "never forget" is when he beat Sebastien Loeb in front of a massive crowd at Stade de France. Instead of the cheers that Ekström was expecting, he was greeted with pin-drop silence. "At first I thought, how can you not cheer! And at that time, and still now, I have a strange sense of humour. So I took my hand up," Ekström says, as he places a finger over his lips, imitating his actions from that day 10 years ago. "I put it like this, to pretend they should all be silent, and then they started clapping their hands," he laughs at the memory. The ROC win against Loeb meant something to Ekström. He believes it made people look at him as a driver whose victories weren't based purely on luck. It reaffirmed his belief that he could beat Loeb on a circuit. "I was always confident I can drive a car fast," he says, "but I doubt I have the biggest talent to become the greatest rally driver of all times like he is". There's that Ekström self-awareness once again!
Also seen chatting with rival Sebastien 'greatest driver in the world' Loeb, whom he's managed to beat at the ROC, and also in the WRX. Plenty of respect between the two.
The period of time, between his last major win - the ROC title in 2009 - when he, for the second year in a row, denied Michael Schumacher victory, was hard. Not because he didn't win, but perhaps because the wins that he did take didn't mean as much to him. "You know, if you dream about winning Spa 24 Hours, and I did it! I remember when I finished the race, a friend drove me home. I did not feel anything. It was not even one tear, you know," he says, again serious. "It was so strange, I did not feel like I achieved anything." Ekström chalks this off to a dislike for Balance of Performance, a staple in endurance racing. "For me this kills everything," he says. It's also one of the main reasons that he likes rallycross as much as he does. "No BoP, based on driver skill, some days you lose, some days you win, but you have to get on with what you get!" he says.
And it's at this point in the conversation that Ekström speaks of one of the things that he feels is essential to his life as a racer. "Somehow you have to be authentic and have the truth on the table. And if you win when it's correct, then you feel 'Yeah! I won correct!" It's also this belief that was confirmed when, after being beaten by Ekström at the ROC, Schumacher came up to him and said that it was important to know when one deserved to win and when one deserved to lose, and that Ekstrom had beaten him fair and square. "You need to know this because sometimes people want to win even when they don't deserve it. And this is something deep inside I struggle to like," Ekström says. "I can pretend to push it away, but I don't like it," he shakes his head.
It's another reason, then, that his win at the 2016 WRX championship means so much to him. "You cannot buy success. You have to somehow deserve it," he says emphatically. And the fact that when he won the title, it wasn't only his team, but also the media and his fans who cheered, and that his competitors congratulated him - that made all the difference. "In the beginning of my career I thought winning is everything. To get the biggest trophy! To be on the top of the podium! That's it! That's what it is ALL about," he smiles. But age and experience have brought wisdom. "Being older, I think to only win has one value. But to win in the perfect way, that is the ultimate goal. And that's why the win meant much more to me this time," he smiles.
One of the things that drives Ekström in motorsport today, however, more than winning, is performance. "I am more performance oriented than result oriented," he says. Because he believes that performance is something that you, as an individual, can control. Whereas results are always compared to someone else. Which is also why Ekström believes that what drives him in motorsport is an eternal quest to answer two questions. "Try to find out 'How good can I be?' is the first question. And the second question is 'How long can I be that good?'" he says. He's quick to clarify that his definition of how good he can be involves driving every possible type of road car, and handling it as best as he can. "And to try and learn as much as possible," the 38-year old driver says. "If you ask me how old I feel - maybe 23, 24, 25. I still feel I am learning as much as I did back then!"
And as a part of the learning process, Ekström has come to realise that "to improve yourself sometimes requires mistakes". He says, "In the past I always saw mistakes as something bad, but these days I see mistakes as something good." It's a philosophy that he brings to his team as well. Although he's quick to point out, "If you made a mistake because you were lazy, there is nothing positive in being lazy! But if you made a mistake because you were trying too hard - that needs to be differentiated."
Maybe Ekström's tolerance, and niceness, can also be chalked off to the fact that he believes that the biggest life lesson he's learnt in his many years in motorsport is "It's the people who make all the difference."
But surely even someone with so many years of experience, such wisdom and knowledge, and this near Yoda-like sense of how one must conduct oneself in a competitive atmosphere, sometimes must get angry? Ekström laughs at the question, hesitates only for a minute, and then says, "I think I can say it I shouldn't be so shy and hide. It's when people don't understand me, or don't know me and don't respect me, then I can get pretty angry. I try not to express it, but sometimes it's cooking over," he laughs, before adding "But I try to behave!"
Another lesson he's learned in his many years racing is to do with the ego. "You have to have an ego. If you don't have it, it will be difficult to be a winner. But I think you have to have an ego which is healthy," he says. "When you sit in the car, you have to be egoistic because sometimes you have to give someone a bang on the door when it's time. But not every day." Ekström pauses, thinks a little, and continues about how he relied a little too much on his ego in the years gone by, something that age has cured him of. "The older I got, the more I realised," he says philosophically.
Which is also why I believe that there isn't a hint of egoism when he tells me that he believes he is a successful team owner today. "Let's say if I wouldn't have won the world title this year, and you would have asked me 'Are you a successful team owner?' I would say 'Yes, I am!'" he grins. After all, success is also something he judges based not on results, but instead on performance. "Being successful in my world is when you achieve your own wishes."
But the path to achieving those wishes doesn't involve only hard work. Ekström says, "There is so much timing in life. I learned this very early." Which is why he also believes that luck or destiny played a part in the fact that Audi made an S1 at the same time that he was considering breaking into rallycross. And that rallycross became a world championship event at the same time. "I had luck," he smiles. But he also acknowledges that the luck was accompanied by an extreme amount of preparation from him. "I took every opportunity that I had. I didn't get many. But every one that I took, I was lucky, because I was always ready when they came in!". Today Ekström believes that people aren't willing to take a risk on an unknown quantity. "I am extremely lucky that I have the job that I have, because people believed in me " he trails off. Then he says "I think if I would grow up today, I would not make a career in motorsport."
Mattias Ekström is jovial, funny, and honest. Ekström knows how to hold a good conversation
But motorsport or not, I believe Ekström would have found something else that kept his mind occupied. After all, this here is a man who declares that the essence of life for him lies in constant challenges. "I think I need to have a challenge, whatever it is. If I wake up and I don't have a big enough challenge," he shakes his head. "No. For me waking up, I need to know that I have a challenge!" And he laughs when he says that the challenge can come from anywhere - they exist in every aspect of his life. "It can be financial, it can be practical, it can be educational, that I want to learn something. And I have many challenges at the same time. I don't let it come down to one or two; I prefer 20 or 30," he laughs. In a sense then, Ekström is his own biggest rival. A fact that he is perfectly content with. "I love challenges, and I want them to be as fair as possible," he says.
This need to constantly challenge himself has also led to self-discovery aplenty. Including the knowledge of how to make oneself happy. It's something Ekström believes isn't easy. "If you ask yourself if you really want to be happy, then yes, it is much more enjoyable to wake up in a good mood and have happy surroundings. But if you ask yourself every day how to achieve this, it's not so easy." He tells me that he doesn't believe that the key to happiness lies in money. He says that, of course, it is nice to buy a new watch, before rolling up the sleeve of his blue jumper and showing me that at the end of the day, he doesn't even wear one. "Should I say, it's when you find out what makes you happy, I think you are a rich person," he smiles.
The EKSRX team celebrate their first world title. One that Ekström achieved with four wins and two podiums
Given that Ekström's spent much of our conversation talking of concepts that seem abstract, the power of honesty, the art of self-reflection and the key to happiness, and given that at one point in our conversation he tells me he's a very positive person, there's one last question I feel compelled to ask him. Does he believe that he created his own luck, by wishing hard for something, and then working towards it?
"For sure," he says. "When you strive for something really bad, I think you are influenced by your dreams more than you expect." Then he lets me in on another little secret. "The more you feed your brain with stuff you want to achieve, your brain will help you even when you're sleeping." It isn't just empty talk. At least as far as Ekström's concerned, it really has worked. Because he's gone from looking up the FIA Gala online, the last thing he'd do before sleeping, to getting ready to attend it. "The best preparation is to feed your brain, so when you're sleeping, you're already practicing," he says. There's no arguing with that.