NEOM McLaren has made a statement of intent by signing Mattias Ekstrom and Cristina Gutierrez to drive for the team in Extreme E this season.
McLaren been in the electric off-road series since 2022, but has so far failed to register a victory in its 15 races to date. The team hopes to turn around its fortunes with the signing of Season 2 champion Gutierrez, and Ekstrom who came within a lap of taking the Season 3 crown last December.
“It’s massive. When they phoned me I couldn’t say no because it’s an historic team and it’s like a dream come true,” Gutierrez told RACER. ”Every driver in the world wants to be at McLaren one day, so it’s difficult to say no to this team.”
Ekstrom, who knows a thing or two about racing for the biggest names in the business, added, “It is pretty awesome. I have to say, papaya colors are pretty different. For a couple of years, since McLaren took this approach it’s been easy to recognize them.
“The first time I came here to Woking to visit, having a walk on the Boulevard, just to see in reality the heritage, is pretty amazing,” he said. “To see what McLaren has done in motorsport and also not only trophies but the certain style and the perfectionism they have, it’s quite cool to be a part of.
“With my little team, EKS, we were also trying to do things differently but I can see here is a totally different level and I’m also enjoying a lot to see and learn everything that is not only related to racing but also creating good content and storytelling, so I can enjoy a lot more in racing than not only driving the car.”
Gutierrez joins the team after three years with Lewis Hamilton’s X44 outfit. The first two of those seasons were spent driving alongside Sebastien Loeb, with the pair clinching the title in the final round of the 2022 campaign. Alongside Rosberg X Racing’s Johan Kristoffersson, Andretti duo Timmy Hansen and Catie Munnings, and Laia Sanz of Acciona Sainz, Gutierrez had been one of just a handful of drivers to stick with one team throughout the first three years of Extreme E.
“I’m used to driving with another team, with other mechanics, engineers and teammates, so it’s a challenge for me but it’s a big opportunity to run in this team,” she said. “It’s a big opportunity to share the team with another legend so I can’t wait to start the season and give to McLaren all that they gave to me.”
While it will be a new teammate for Gutierrez, Ekstom is no stranger with the pair having competed together in rally raid events. And he’s mightily impressed with his new colleague.
“I think she’s proven that she’s very smart and fast and she’s positioned herself as the number one female, for me, in motorsport. I don’t mean only Extreme E or Dakar, but as a whole,” Ekstrom said. “In the rally raid world I think she’s positioned herself well and has a proven record of doing smart things, so I’m looking forward to sharing a car with her and seeing if there’s something I can learn myself. But if she wants any advice, I’m happy to help and see if I can also help her to take one more step in her career.”
It’s an appreciation that’s reciprocated by Gutierrez. She knows all too well the value Ekstrom can bring to a team, having driven in a competition where many teams have been after his signature.
“He’s impressive. I’ve known for a long time that all the best teams in the Dakar want him to be on their team, because he improves the car a lot,” she said. “He’s behind the wheel all the time, competing in different [series] and it makes a big difference compared with somebody who maybe does only one or two races per year.
“Also, a good thing from Mattias is he came from rallycross and in this championship, in Extreme E, the starts are very important, so I’ll love to share the car with him.”
Both drivers join McLaren off the back of a strong Dakar rally where Gutierrez claimed overall victory in the Challenger (T3) category, while Ekstrom won the prologue and two stages with Audi before mechanical issues derailed a quest for a likely victory in the Ultimate (car) class.
“We have been very busy with our Dakar programs, both Cristina and myself,” Ekstrom said of both drivers’ start to life at McLaren. “We did the Morocco Rally, then it was fitness training, and then 10 days off before Dakar so there hasn’t been much preparation stuff going on.
“But we will have an event together as a crew prep, then it will also very soon start with all the regular setup, preparation, and operations about our weekend and all that — what I call the fun but boring stuff, breaking down the weekend in detail and seeing how good we can make it.”