Double DTM and FIA World Rallycross Champion Mattias Ekström thrilled the home fans at Sweden’s Pite Havsbad by winning the Race Of Champions for a record-equalling fourth time
Ekström 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 ahead of a field featuring some of motorsport’s greatest ever drivers
It was an emotional finale as Ekström 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
Four-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel and winner of 17 WRC rallies Thierry Neuville reached the semi-finals on the snow and ice of the frozen Baltic Sea, just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle
Swedish hopeful Johan Kristoffersson went out to his countryman Ekström in the quarter-finals while Finnish F1 greats Mika Hakkinen and Valtteri Bottas lost in the Round of 16
Reigning ROC Champion of Champions Sébastien Loeb also exited in the Round of 16, beaten by Neuville by just four hundredths of a second
Oliver Solberg won the battle for family pride by beating his father Petter after their shared ROC Nations Cup triumph yesterday for Team Norway
Double DTM and FIA World Rallycross Champion Mattias Ekström put in a stunning performance to eclipse 17 fellow superstars of motorsport and win the 2023 Race Of Champions for a record-equalling fourth time – on a day of non-stop action on the frozen Baltic Sea at Sweden’s Pite Havsbad, just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle.
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 Race Of Champions saw greats of global motorsport battling for glory in a mix of identical 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.
In front of packed crowds of Swedish fans braving the cold, the best-of-three Grand Final boiled down to a duel between home hopeful Ekström and Mercedes-AMG F1 reserve driver Mick Schumacher.
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 Race Of Champions record also held by French rally greats Didier Auriol and Sébastien Loeb.
Incredibly, Ekström 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 – which made today’s finale even more special.
Afterwards an emotional Ekström said:
“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. I won my first final at the Stade de France in Paris against Sébastien 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. This is 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. I only got to know Michael at the Race Of Champions. We had many battles and I have only great memories with Michael from this event. I’m super proud because Mick also rode with me on Friday in the Dakar car and we had a nice time. Michael was always humble with me and I can see Mick is also very humble. Mick is such a huge talent and his time is ahead of him, so I look forward to more battles in the future. I know it won’t take long until I get beaten, but against Mick I would have no problem with finishing second.
“In the final today on the startline I said to myself: full focus until the chequered 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.
“Earlier today the battle with Johan is always special. Sitting on the startline was the emotional highlight of the day, when my body comes to its limit. He knows as well as I do that in these conditions, you have to bring out your A game, so to beat him by those few hundredths was very nice. That sums up the Race Of Champions, and it’s the reason why everyone wants to take part. To have the event here in Sweden has been even more special for me. Today was amazing. I can’t wait enough for the next generation to join us here at the Race Of Champions, but I will fight as long as I can and as long as I seem good enough and as long as Fredrik invites me, I will be here.”
“Congratulations to Mattias and thank you for those kind words. 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 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.
“Earlier in the day I especially enjoyed my battle with Seb. I beat him on the tarmac in Mexico in 2019 too, so to do it again today was quite fun. It’s always good to talk to Seb at this event and to hear his sensations when he’s driving. We’ve always been quite open about exchanging the information that we’ve gathered, and I also went to Mattias a few times today and yesterday, trying to get some tips from his ‘toolbox’. It wasn’t quite enough but this has been an amazing weekend so thank you very much to everyone involved with the Race Of Champions.”
To reach the Grand Final Ekström and Schumacher had to see off a field featuring 18 of the world’s greatest drivers. 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, the 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, Ekström finished on top of the pile having brought an end to a spirited run by Thierry Neuville, the winner of 17 WRC rallies.
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. The 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 Ekström saw off his fellow Swede, the 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.
The Round of 16 was another graveyard for motorsport’s superstars. In the racing half of the draw, 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 of Champions and nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien 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 Ekström.
Kicking off the afternoon’s action, four of the racing drivers were matched up in pairs for two Round 1 play-offs. 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.
Ahead of the main competition, the home fans were given a treat as four Swedish heroes took part in a celebrity race in the Polaris RZR PRO XP. The field featured Olympic skiing gold medallists Ingemar Stenmark and Anja Pärson, ice hockey’s NHL legend and Olympic gold medallist Tomas Holmström and YouTube sensation Emil Hansius. In the end it was Holmström who came out on top, beating Stenmark in the final while Hansius pipped Pärson for bronze.
This year’s Race Of Champions has raised funds and awareness towards a selection of worthwhile charities. The key recipients have included German children’s charity Kinderlachen, the Zelmerlöw and Björkman Foundation’s school in Kenya, the ICM (institute for advanced research on brain and spinal cord injuries in Paris) plus a range of the drivers’ other favourite charities.
Today’s action at Pite Havsbad marks the end of ROC Sweden for 2023. We hope you enjoyed this festival of motor sport and entertainment on the snow and ice, and we look forward to welcoming you back for our next event.