Opinion: Without Ekstrom, the DTM has lost a true hero
The recent news of Mattias Ekstrom's exit from the DTM will leave a big void in the series this year, says Motorsport.com Germany's Julia Spacek.
On Monday, we learned that DTM will have to get along without Mattias Ekstrom in the future, as the Swedish driver announced his retirement from the German tin-top series at a press conference at Hangar-7 in Salzburg.
One of the last remaining real heroes of the championship has hung up his helmet. It's a big shame, because "Eki" was a real guy who did not care about political correctness and did not mince his words.
The 39-year-old Audi driver was a blessing for journalists. His media sessions were always well attended, because the two-time DTM champion was always joking and had a lot to talk about - a welcome change in the DTM paddock.
It will not happen soon again. On Monday, for the time being, the last Q&A session with Ekstrom about DTM was held.
When the invitation to the press conference in Salzburg landed in my inbox last week, I immediately thought: 'Oh no, Ekstrom is quitting!'
After discussions with my fellow journalists, however, we decided the announcement was probably to say that the Audi driver would tackle his last DTM season in 2018, then will fully focus on his rallycross team EKS, in which he played a dual role as a team boss and driver.
When I arrived at Hangar-7 on Monday, and saw how much attention was being paid to the press conference, I suddenly had a bad feeling again. Eki's championship-winning cars from 2004 and 2007, his last DTM racer from 2017 and his World Rallycross car were all on display. A flashback to the "good old days".
When I noticed that Audi motorsport director Dieter Gass and team boss Hans-Jurgen Abt were also present, I realised that this was not going to be a normal press conference: if he was continuing to drive in DTM, there wouldn't be such a big fuss.
My feeling that Ekstrom was about to bid his farewell intensified, and at 1pm my worst fears were realised. There it was, the decision that everyone has been waiting for for months and about which there was a lot of speculation.
Already last season, Eki complained that he can't spend much time at home with his family due to his double programme in DTM and World Rallycross. Since he is a father of two children, son Mats (6) and daughter Hanna (4), he sees many things differently. His priorities have changed, he explained.
Therefore, an announcement was already expected for the season finale 2017 in Hockenheim, in case Ekstrom won his third DTM title there. He simply did not want to disappear from the scene quietly, but instead wanted to say goodbye to his fans, who have accompanied and supported him for the last 17 years.
Not only among the journalists, the man from the Swedish town of Falun is very popular among the fans - something that is shown by the many 'Eki' caps and long queues at autograph sessions. They will miss the Swede too.
When Ekstrom announced his sad decision for all DTM fans, there was a depressed mood among those present at Hangar-7. A DTM without him is difficult to imagine; after all, he has influenced the German-based series a lot over the years.
In 2001, the then 22-year-old came to Audi as a rookie and raced against big names like Bernd Schneider, Laurent Aiello and Uwe Alzen - real guys with rough edges. Ekstrom described himself as a rather "boring and inconspicuous" person at that time.
After the disappearance of those heroes, Ekstrom was one of the few remaining guys in the DTM, alongside Gary Paffett, who used to say openly when something did not suit them - often to the chagrin of their PR managers.
195 races, two championship titles, four runner-up placings, 23 wins, 77 podiums and 20 pole positions later, Ekstrom has hung up his helmet - for now.
"You always see yourself twice in your life," he said with a mischievous smile on his face, hinting at a possible DTM comeback. Eventually. If there are ?"finally really cool DTM cars without flicks, flaps, sensors and other bells and whistles, then maybe I'll think about it again," he promised.
For now, though, Ekstrom's exit leaves a big void in the DTM, one that will be difficult to fill - almost impossible, in fact. Because on Monday, the series lost a real hero.
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