Ekstrom edges Schumacher for Race of Champions crown

Photos courtesy of ROC

Ekstrom edges Schumacher for Race of Champions crown

International Racing

Ekstrom edges Schumacher for Race of Champions crown


Double DTM and FIA World Rallycross champion Mattias Ekstrom delighted his home fans at Sweden’s Pite Havsbad on Sunday by winning the Race Of Champions — the annual event pitting some of the world’s top racers in multiple types of cars — for a record-equaling fourth time.

Ekstrom prevailed after defeating Mercedes-AMG F1 reserve driver Mick Schumacher by two heats to nil in the Grand Final to take the ROC 2023 title. It was an emotional finale as Ekstrom had won two of his previous ROC titles against Mick’s father Michael — at London’s Wembley Stadium in 2007 and at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium in 2009

Following Team Norway’s triumph in yesterday’s ROC Nations Cup, all cooperation went out of the window today. The individual Race Of Champions pitted some of the world’s greatest drivers — from series including Formula 1, Formula 2, IndyCar, Le Mans, W Series, World Rally, World Rallycross, Nitro Rallycross and X-Games –head-to-head on an icy parallel track featuring ROC’s iconic crossover bridge.

On a sunny afternoon at Pite Havsbad, the ROC saw greats of global motorsport battling for glory in a mix of identically prepared machinery — including the electric Cupra UrbanRebel Concept, Zeroid X1 rallycross car powered by QEV and FC1-X Nitro Rallycross car. The off-road Polaris RZR PRO XP made a welcome ROC return as did the SuperCar Lites, now powered by 100% fossil-free biofuel.

After a thrilling finale as both drivers pushed to the limit, Ekström saw off his German rival by two heats to nil — despite a brief scare when he had to put out a fire in his car — to be crowned ROC “Champion of Champions” for the fourth time. The Swede thus equals the all-time ROC record also held by French rally greats Didier Auriol and Sebastien Loeb.

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

“In the final today on the startline I said to myself: full focus until the checkered flag. I had an OK start but after half a lap something caught fire and there was starting 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. I thought: ‘OK, what’s caught fire? It must be the windscreen heater.’ On the next straight I switched it off but the fire didn’t stop. Then I thought: ‘I’m wearing fireproof gloves, I’m not scared…’ so I tried to grab the fire. I found it, and luckily it stopped. In that process I didn’t lose much time because I didn’t take my foot off the throttle. I certainly didn’t want to press the fire extinguisher because then I knew it would all be over.”

Schumacher complimented the winner, but acknowledged circuit drivers face a bit of a handicap against rally and rallycross aces in events like this.

“Congratulations to Mattias… he’s an exceptional driver and that really proves it. He’s done an amazing job all weekend. I was trying my best out there but it was just not enough. What we do in circuit racing is very different to what Mattias does and I agree with what Seb (Vettel) said on Friday: We arrive at a corner and we have a screwdriver and a hammer, whereas they have a complete toolbox. The amount of knowledge they can bring towards this event, to feel the car and to know exactly what to do in each moment, is something I don’t have yet. So it’s a matter of putting in the hours — on dirt tracks too — learning and trying to improve. Then hopefully next year I can give him a run for his money.”

Because the track conditions on snow and ice can change quickly depending on the weather, ROC’s traditional group stage did not take place. Instead, this year’s Race Of Champions used a straight knockout system with the field split into two halves: one featured the international racing drivers while the other had the rally experts and those with more experience of off-road driving.

At the semi-final stage Schumacher defeated his fellow countryman, four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel, 2-0 to take bragging rights in the circuit racers’ half of the draw. On the rally side, Ekstrom finished on top of the pile having brought an end to a spirited run by WRC ace Thierry Neuville.

The quarter-finals saw many big names bite the dust — not least nine-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Tom Kristensen, who lost to Vettel. Reigning FIA Formula 2 champion Felipe Drugovich was the other racing driver who went out, beaten by Schumacher on countback of fastest times after a 1-1 tie.

On the rally side Ekstrom saw off his fellow Swede, five-time World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson, after a close battle between the two home hopefuls. The last driver going out at this stage was yesterday’s ROC Nations Cup winner for Team Norway Oliver Solberg, who lost to Neuville after crashing out of their first heat.

In the Round of 16, double F1 world champion Mika Hakkinen fell to Drugovich and 10-time F1 grand prix winner Valtteri Bottas lost to Kristensen. 2022 eTouring Car World Cup champion Adrien Tambay and triple W Series champion Jamie Chadwick also left the competition at this stage, beaten by Schumacher and Vettel respectively.

The rally side of the draw was just as brutal. Reigning ROC champion and nine-time World Rally champion Sebastien Loeb fell to Neuville, albeit beaten by just four hundredths of a second. Loeb’s fellow World Rally champion Petter Solberg lost the battle for family pride, defeated by son Oliver after their shared triumph for Team Norway in yesterday’s ROC Nations Cup. McLaren Extreme E driver Tanner Foust was another of the early casualties, falling to Kristoffersson, while extreme sports legend and Nitro Rallycross Champion Travis Pastrana lost out to Ekstrom.

Kicking off the afternoon’s action, four of the racing drivers were matched up in pairs for two Round 1 playoffs. 13-time F1 grand prix winner David Coulthard fell to defeat by Tambay while IndyCar race winner Felix Rosenqvist had to bid an early goodbye after spinning off against Schumacher.