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Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist: super Swedes chasing Dakar glory

Sweden has a knack for producing great rally drivers. Meet the duo piloting Audi's pioneering concept through the Arabian Desert

Mattias Ekström is the youngest of Audi’s Dakar Rally pilots, but don’t for a minute think he lacks experience. Quite the opposite; the Swedish driver’s CV definitely won’t fit onto a single side of A4 paper.

Two championships in the German DTM touring car series. Wins against two-time champion (and former World Rally champ) Petter Solberg in Rallycross. Assaults on both NASCAR and Australia’s iconic Bathurst 1000. A bit of dune-bashing in Extreme E. Numerous WRC rounds, most notably at his native Rally Sweden. Then there’s the not so minor boast of beating Michael Schumacher in the Race of Champions – twice.

“Go hard or go home” has always been Ekström’s motto and his wild track record is clear evidence he lives up to the billing. But naturally the elements of the Dakar Rally call for a more measured mantra. “Be the smartest of the fastest drivers” is his newly edited (if less punchy) catchphrase.

His first dive into the dusty melee was in 2021, when he got behind the wheel of a side-by-side, finding himself... well, side by side with Junior World Rally Champion Emil Bergkvist acting as his navigator. Stage-ending damage on the seventh leg of the race took them out of contention, but the team’s impressive pace meant they were destined to return for another crack.

Emil Bergkvist

For Dakar 2022, Ekström and Bergkvist found themselves in the T1 Ultimate class with Audi’s hybrid RS Q e-tron and thus operating on a whole new plain. Even so, on stage eight Ekström was trading fastest-sector times with fellow Audi driver Stéphane Peterhansel, until a big hit on a dune forced the veteran to stop for a couple of minutes. Ekström kept up the blistering pace and took the stage win, ahead of not only Peterhansel, but WRC great Sébastien Loeb and Dakar legend Nasser Al-Attiyah, the eventual victor that year.

Ekström claimed another stage win in 2023, laying down the gauntlet in the inaugural Dakar Rally Prologue event to prove both his and the RS Q e-tron’s latent potential ahead of the car’s second appearance. He’ll hope to add to his record with more stage wins in 2024.

Co-driver and fellow Swede Emil Bergkvist may not yet have turned 30 yet is far from overawed. If stage wins at Dakar weren’t already enough evidence, the way Bergkvist approaches his new role as co-driver exudes a familiarity and composure that belies how new he is to the experience.

“We realised we had a very good connection [from early on],” says Bergkvist. “I know from my own experience as a driver that if you don’t fully trust the guy sitting next to you, you can’t perform at the wheel. Being Mattias’ co-driver is no problem for me... he knows exactly what he is doing in the car.”

Ekström’s track record certainly proves that. And yet the 45-year-old still feels like a baby alongside Audi’s other drivers, Carlos Sainz snr and Stéphane Peterhansel. “The two of them show that you need a huge amount of experience for rally raids like the Dakar,” admits Ekström. “In driving, in navigating and – in an emergency – in repairing the car. Whenever I see Carlos, I say to myself: ‘Mattias, you’re only halfway through your racing career’.

“I don’t think that I’ll ever stop. I’ll always be involved in motorsport in some way, whether as a driver, a team principal, or a race engineer. I love it and I’m a bit addicted to it!”

You won’t find us arguing…

For more Audi performance stories, head this way

*This vehicle shown here is the Rally Dakar vehicle that is not available as a production model. Closed course, professional driver. Do not attempt. The Audi RS Q e-tron combines an electric drivetrain with an energy converter system comprising a TFSI engine and generator.

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