Mattias Ekstrom is not just a two-time DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) champion, he is now also a three-time winner of the Race of Champions. The Swedish touring car ace added another RoC title to his list of achievements in this year's event in Beijing today, beating seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher in the finals.
"This is a very special day for me," the 31-year-old Swede smiled. "I was not particularly fortunate this year in the DTM. To end the season with a victory against Michael Schumacher is fantastic!"
Ekstrom, the 2004 and 2007 DTM champion, scored three DTM pole positions for Audi this year, but could not convert any of those into victories. However, today's victory adds to his 2006 and 2007 RoC titles, moving him into a tie for second place in the all-time Champion of Champions list with the dominant WRC (World Rally Championship) driver Sebastien Loeb; 1994 WRC champion Didier Auriol still holds the record with four victories from 1993 to 1999.
Ekstrom's drive to the title was flawless, as the Swede won every single start on the 1.074-km track built within Beijing's famous "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium. It was the first RoC event held in Beijing; the last two events were held in London's Wembley stadium, after three years at Stade-de-France in Paris -- and 12 years on Gran Canaria.
The cars used in this year's Race of Champions races included the Volkswagen Scirocco, Ford Focus WRC, KTM X-Bow, Solution F Prototype and three different sprint buggies.
This year's new format saw the introduction of an initial group stage, where Ekstrom handily won all three of his races against Andy Priaulx, Mickey Doohan and Travis Pastrana. Driving a RoC buggy, VW Scirocco and KTM X-Bow, Ekstrom's wins were never by less than two seconds. Prialux took second in the group, but would end up losing to Jenson Button in a Ford Focus WRC in the quarter-finals.
Button had won his group, beating Tom Kristensen, Guerlin Chicheret and Tanner Foust. Ekstrom's DTM teammate Kristensen took second in the group, but lost the quarter-final, driving a pair of Solution F buggies, to Ekstrom by nearly 1.3 seconds.
In the meantime, on the other side of the draw, Schumacher had handily won his initial group as well. The F1 legend beat his old rival David Coulthard, touring car ace Yvan Muller and two-time WRC champion Marcus Gronholm, by margins close to those of Ekstrom. Coulthard secured second in the group with close-fought wins over Muller and Gronholm.
In the final group, it was the new star of Formula One in Germany, Sebastian Vettel, that took the group victory, beating WRC star Mikko Hirvonen, 2009 Dakar Rally winner Giniel de Villiers and motocross superstar Chad Reed. Hirvonen took second in the group.
In the quarter-finals, Schumacher easily disposed of Hirvonen in a race with the KTMs, while Vettel barely edged Coulthard in the RoC buggies, setting up a semi-final showdown between the glorious past and promising future of Formula One.
In the event, we will never know which would have been faster, as Vettel crashed his KTM into the barriers on the final lap of their semi-final, and had to retire with a broken wheel.
With Ekstrom having handily disposed of Button, this year's Formula One champion, it was time for the final showdown. While Schumacher has more F1 titles than anyone else, the closest he had come to a Race of Champions victory in three previous attempts had been a loss in the 2007 finals -- to Ekstrom.
With the final being a best-of-three format, the two drivers first lined up in RoC buggies: Ekstrom would draw the first blood, beating Schumacher with a time of 1:57.290, just 0.181 seconds faster than the German. The gap had been more than twice as big at the midpoint of the race, but Schumacher was able to push to make up most of the gap by the end.
The second heat saw both drivers switching to a KTM X-Bow, a sportscar that should be better suited for both Ekstrom and Schumacher. However, Ekstrom was clearly at home in the KTM as well, and took the heat victory -- and the overall title -- by more than six tenths of a second, 1:56.044 to 1:56.657.
Ekstrom has now won the Race of Champions titles in Paris, London and Beijing; it remains to be seen where else we will yet see Ekstrom celebrate a Race of Champions victory. But, first, he has the small matter of the 2010 DTM title to shoot for.