It still seems odd, doesn’t it, McLaren in off-road racing? And yet this year will be the third that the famously squeaky-clean brand has gone and got its feet — or rather its tires — dirty.
The last two years have been OK for the NEOM McLaren Extreme E team — steady progress, flashes of speed, and a couple of podiums — but now it wants to make that final step. Extreme E’s highest-profile under-achievers have glory on their minds. Of course they do — they are McLaren, after all.
“For sure McLaren did very well,” new signing Cristina Gutierrez tells RACER. “It’s not an easy championship, all the things change each year and it’s sometimes difficult to manage the rules, the car, all the things that can happen, and for sure they are trying everything to win this championship.”
Gutierrez and Ekstrom bring experience in a variety of realms to the McLaren Extreme E program.
Alongside the Season 2 champion will be Mattias Ekstrom, the double DTM and 2016 World Rallycross champion who almost added an Extreme E crown to that list last year.
“I think that all the teams in Extreme E have had, at times, the chance to win races,” he points out. “But the most difficult thing is to keep the car on-pace every single session with changing conditions — you have unlucky starting slots, and there’s always something or someone that will bring their A-game at time. I think with the experience I have and also what Cristina has, I think will be able to bring this.
“Sometimes, to win you need to be in the right flow. It’s easy to see the result afterwards, but on the trip to get to the result, you also have to be very humble and honest with yourself about why you’re winning and why you’re not.”
The drivers are just part of the equation, though, with the tight-knit group McLaren takes to the races just as vital — and Gutierrez is eager to get stuck in with them.
Race prep in Extreme E requires managing “all the details” in some of the most remote locations on Earth. Colin McMaster/Motorsport Images
“The professionalism that they have, all the little details that they manage — every single detail is important for them,” she says. “When you you walk through the door at McLaren you can see the professionalism, all the teamwork.
“When they started in Extreme E I was impressed by the team spirit, the family that they had in Extreme E and for sure when they called me I wanted to have this feeling, the family spirit. I can now say I am now [in] the family and I’m very happy.”
One member of that team is sporting director Gary Paffett. The former driver is very much a known quantity to Ekstrom, who spent years battling with him in DTM — the pair won two titles apiece between 2004 and 2018. But while they might have enjoyed an intense rivalry in the past, nowadays, Ekstrom says, “when it comes to the sporting side, I feel I can trust him 100 percent.”
“Gary was one of my fiercest competitors in DTM — when I saw him in the paddock, it was always like this love-hate relationship,” he says. “But as he wasn’t competing against me [in Extreme E], if you have to know why I’m here, it’s him. It’s exciting to be working with everybody here, but especially him.
“I shouldn’t say it, but he’s one of the few I could accept losing against in my entire career,” he reveals. “I never enjoyed losing against him, but I could accept it, and to have him as the boss during this project is very exciting. To have the chance to work closely with him is something I’m looking forward to.
“The bottom line is I know how much of a winner he is, and I can see that the entire team is doing things very professionally; but in the end you want a good result, so I will try to help them as much as I can.”
The conversation between the three of us so far has centered around the team’s expectations, but it’s only natural that when someone takes a new job, you question what the perks could be, too. Their predecessors Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour got to sample some legendary McLaren machines like the MP4/2, MP4/6, MP4/14, F1 GTR, and M8D, so have Gutierrez and Ekstrom been putting together their wish lists?
Gutierrez laughs before I even can finish the question.
“Well, for sure it would be a highlight in my life,” she says. “If I can select one, I’d be happy to drive a Formula 1 car. I don’t care about the year — it’s one of the biggest moments in the career of any driver so I hope to have the chance to drive one of them. We will see.”
The prospect of getting a chance to play with the McLaren collection of vintage F1 cars is another side benefit of association with the team. Dominik Wilde photo
Ekstrom previously hasn’t been too fazed about the prospect of sampling a grand prix car, but now as an official McLaren driver, the lure seems to be proving too much to ignore. He, however, is more keen to spend time with fellow motorsport enthusiast — and new boss — Zak Brown.
“I wouldn’t say I’m one of them that wants to jump in the car and drive — I’m not a Formula 1 person, but I’m starting to realize at my age, at one point I want to drive a Formula 1 car, I must admit,” he says. “The only thing I haven’t driven on the planet is an F1 car. I still think there are some things in my life I should learn to explore and maybe that’s something I can ask Zak to put on my wish list for Christmas.
“He has quite a big passion for motorsport, but also rally cars or anything. He’s not a Formula 1 nerd; he’s more of a motorsport nerd. I’m looking forward to seeing his garage, to see his rally cars and just to have a chat with him to see what he thinks about life.”
The job at hand, however, remains the main focus. And it’s not lost on the team that it is racing in one of the most competitive series around.
“For sure we need to build the team and we need to be aligned from the beginning to try to win, because every single team can win in these races,” Gutierrez says. “We are a big team now, for sure, but the other teams are also going to be fast and competitive. In this championship every point is very important, so we should fight from the beginning for each single point.”
Gutierrez speaks from experience, having won the Extreme E title with Sebastien Loeb at Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team in 2022. Ekstrom knows what it takes, too, even if he came up short in the 2023 title fight after an incident for former teammate Laia Sanz on the last lap of the last race of the most recent campaign. The near-miss has only made him more hungry to succeed in his new surroundings.
“I think the day where I go racing and I don’t dream about winning, that’s when I won’t be on the entry list,” he says. “That’s not saying I have to win to be a happy man, because sometimes you can’t control the environment or something happens — or especially in this racing you can have accidents — but I definitely go into this season with the hopes of being competitive in every session, every weekend and will just try to avoid as many mistakes as possible, try to have as clean weekends as possible.
“I think last year, there was evidence that if you do your homework, if you keep pushing and you do all the right things, you will be one of the championship contenders,” he adds. “If we manage to keep the car clean, have no technical issues and we take care with our driving, I would really like to have a championship battle again this year. I also love and get addicted to those hard battles which, in the end, you want to win.
“Last year we had a super-hard battle but we lost and that sucks, but it’s like this. I haven’t won this championship, I still want to win it, and with Cristina I have somebody who has won it and I think she’s better than ever so I don’t see many excuses why we shouldn’t be able to fight for it.”