Mattias Ekström: The Driver WRX Needs in 2020
With under half of the 2020 WRX season to go, I take a look at who I think is the most important driver of the season, and possibly the entire series.
For the 2019 World Rallycross season, there was no doubt a state of fear for the future of the series – all of the factory teams of Audi, Peugeot and Volkswagen had pulled out (with Ford pulling out a year earlier) amid various concerns over the future electrification of the dual-surface racing’s top tier category. WRX had initially planned to introduce an electric version of the current Supercar model alongside the internal combustion engine powered compatriots in 2020, before being eventually delayed until 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year.
The reasoning behind the manufacturers’ exit were split between the electric introduction either coming in too soon, or not coming soon enough for them. Because of this, it was impossible for the FIA , WRX and promotors (until the end of 2020) IMG to satisfy all parties, and in the end the championship was left without manufacturer support for 2019.
This was a massive financial hit for those manufacturer backed teams – Team Peugeot Total became Team Hansen, were reduced from three Peugeot 208s to two, and lost their star driver Sébastien Loeb; EKS Audi Sport became EKS Sport and were reduced from two full time entries to one, losing both Mattias Ekström (although he made a one-off appearance in Belgium) and fan-favourite Andreas Bakkerud; PSRX Volkswagen Sweden left the series entirely, which meant the championship lost reigning Double Champion Johan Kristoffersson and Peter Solberg, as well as the team’s champions from the last two years. Ford’s Hoonigan Racing Division factory team, including Ken Block, left the series after 2017.
There were many concerns about the 2019 season possibly not even going ahead without the manufacturer support, however IMG did a stellar job to produce what ended up being the championship’s closest and most thrilling season to date. One of the changes made to ensure the season went ahead was the removal of three events, including one of the four ‘flyaways’ planned (Abu Dhabi, USA, Canada, South Africa), with the USA, Portuguese and German rounds getting the chop.
Noah's Arc in America - VW leading Audi leading Peugeot in their antepenultimate event as factory teams in 2018 // Image credit: WRX
There were now four full time teams (multi-car teams) on the grid – Team Hansen with the Hansen brothers of Timmy and Kevin; Monster Energy RX Cartel in their debut season with Bakkerud and Liam Doran; GRX Taneco Team with Niclas Grönholm and Timur Timerzyanov (and Joni Wiman who replaced Grönholm while he recovered from appendicitis); and GCK with Anton Marklund and Guerlain Chicherit in the senior Renault Megane squad, and Cyril Raymond and Guillaume De Ridder in the junior Clio squad.
What ensued was a titanic championship fight between the Hansen brothers and Bakkerud, with Timmy Hansen taking the title after a dramatic finale in South Africa, in which all three title contenders crashed on the opening lap, on countback as Timmy and Andreas were equal on 211 points, with Kevin Hansen just 12 points back on 199. Grönholm would have certainly been in that title fight had he not missed two rounds due to appendicitis, as he ended the season on a stunning 186 points.
Not only was the title fight close, but the season saw no fewer than 6 different winners and 11 different podium finishers. This was such a stark contrast to the dominance of Kristoffersson in the past two seasons, where in 2018 he won all bar one event and only 7 drivers stood on the rostrum, and in 2017 Kristofferson won 7 out of 12 events with 8 drivers on the podium. It really was the dawn of a new era for World Rallycross, as not only had it shown the world that the top level of Rallycross can happen without manufacturer support, but that it was in fact better.
For 2020, the WRX season was badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic like all motorsports, with 6 events having to be cancelled including the anticipated inaugural World RX of Russia at Igora Drive, and the fan favourite events of Norway, France and South Africa. However, IMG pulled out all the stops to ensure a 10-race calendar was put together, with the exciting return of Finland’s Kouvola circuit for the first time since 2014, and the addition of the Nürburgring for the first time to WRX.
As for the grid lineup, there were some very exciting changes from 2019 – Monster Energy RX Cartel had joined forces with GCK to run a pair of Megane RSs for Bakkerud and Doran; Team JC stepped up to take over RX Cartel’s former Audis to run a full two car team for Janis Baumanis and Robin Larsson; ALL-INKLE.COM Münnich Motorsport also stepped up to running two SEAT Ibizas for Timo Scheider and René Münnich. However the biggest news was the return of Johan Kristofferson with the Volkswagen Dealerteam BAUHAUS squad.
Understandably, this struck fear into the other teams, as they knew just how fast the Polo GTI was from its dominating days of 2017-2018. The hope was that after a year out, the developments made to WRX’s leading cars of the Audi S1s, Hyundai i20s, Peugeot 208s and Renault Megane RSs would close up the gap to the Polo and there wouldn’t be another season of Kristofferson dominance, especially as this year he didn’t have a teammate to worry about.
However, it wasn’t going to be easy for Kristoffersson as on the eve of the season start in the summer of 2020, it was announced that Mattias Ekström, one of Kristoffersson’s biggest rivals, would replace Baumanis at KYB Team JC and drive on a race-by-race contract.
This would prove to be a vital announcement for the championship fight staying alive in 2020. As of writing, 6 out of 10 races have taken place, with Kristofferson winning half of them, Ekström taking two wins and Grönholm taking one. It is very much a two-horse race in the title fight with Kristoffersson leading Ekström by 166 points to 149, with Grönholm back on 117.
At the first round in Sweden, it was immediately clear that the VW Polo was still the class of the field, however crucially the Audi S1 was not at all far behind. What’s giving the Polo and Kristoffersson the advantage is their immense pace on old tyres (which became apparent at the not very tyre-friendly Riga circuit in Latvia) and in the wet (which became clear in both Sweden and Finland).
Kristoffersson after winning the opening round of the 2020 season in the wet at Sweden // Image credit: WRX
To make matters worse for Kirstoffersson’s rivals, RX Cartel are having a torrid year with the Megane, with a significant lack of pace in the car and the worst reliability in the world for Liam Doran seeing him barely finish any of the races, while Team Hansen struggled to understand the car in the opening rounds at Sweden which saw them off the pace and with a big points deficit to make up.
As a result, this had led to Ekström being Kristoffersson’s biggest, and possibly only, real challenger for the title. This is not to doubt the talent of the other drivers – Bakkerud, Doran, the Hansens, Grönholm, Timerzyanov, Larsson, Juha Rytkönen, Marklund, Krisztián Szabó and Scheider are all world-class RX drivers.
If Kristoffersson dominates the 2020 season, the series risks 2019 being seen as an anomaly in history, and realistically the only person who has a chance of stopping that is Mattias Ekström. As of writing, with a week and a half before the next two races in Spain, Ekström and Team JC are yet to confirm if the 2016 WRX Champion will be racing.
He recently was announced as one of CUPRA’s drivers for the new Extreme E rallying championship for 2021, and I believe the ultimate decision as to if Ekström continues in the FIA World Rallycross Championship in 2020 is down to them. One advantage is that CUPRA is teamed with Abt Sportsline in Extreme E, who have a strong relationship with Audi (despite Daniel Abt’s ‘cheating’ scandal in Formula E’s Race at Home Challenge over lockdown), and Team JC run Audi S1s in the WRX, so let’s hope that CUPRA and Abt see all the bonuses of running the driver who won the 2020 WRX Championship in an Audi in Extreme E next year. Who knows, with the forthcoming electrification of rallycross, it may even persuade Abt to get involved in WRX too.
There you go, that is why I feel that Mattias Ekström is the driver that the FIA World Rallycross Championship desperately needs in 2020. I hope you enjoyed the read and feel free to let me know your opinions on the matter in the comments below.