Ekström lived out a childhood fantasy in Finland
© Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Rallycross under the northern lights lives in our heads rent free forever
Mattias Ekström and photographer Jaanus Ree had their sights set on the northern lights. Here's the story of how these stunning images were captured.
Written by Tim Sturtridge
Published on
It’s been a fast-paced start to 2021 for Mattias Ekström as the year started with him making his debut at the Dakar Rally. The former DTM and WRX champion got to taste all the highs and lows of the world’s toughest rally before bringing his Yamaha YXZ1000R SxS across the finish line in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
When January tuned to February, the race conditions switched from desert sand to snow as Ekström drove the Arctic Rally Finland. After all, the Swede has never been afraid to mix things up. A fifth place finish in the World Rally Championship-3 in Rovaniemi after 15 years away from the WRC would have been most people’s highlight of a trip to the Arctic, but not for Ekström.
That’s because competing at the Arctic Rally was just one stop on an icy road trip that Ekström undertook through his native Scandinavia. A road trip that visited snowmobile trickster Daniel Bodin, slalom champion Frida Hansdotter, MMA fighter Madeleine Vall Beijner and seven-time Sweden Rally winner Stig Blomqvist. There were even some huskies and reindeer that joined in the fun!
“It all started out with me deciding that I wanted to do a little Arctic adventure,” Ekström reveals. “I took some time planning out the things that I really wanted to do. I was lucky that I could visit so many cool people and do the sort of things I dreamt about as a kid.”
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By far and away the most ambitious item on Ekström’s wishlist was to drive his Audi S1 World Rallycross car under the northern lights – and get the whole thing photographed. Could it even be done?
“Throughout the road trip the dream was to see the northern lights, but the weather never seemed to be on our side,” Ekström admits. “We came very close to giving up on seeing it.”
Things are so unpredictable up in the Arctic Circle
Jaanus Ree – sports photographer
To realise the project, the most important call Ekström made was to renowned sports photographer Jaanus Ree. The Estonian snapper not only has an expert eye for capturing race cars, but he also has experience in the Arctic Circle.
“There are two things you have to watch out for,” Ree explains. “The first thing you need is clear skies and the second is the location where the northern lights will appear. Things are so unpredictable up in the Arctic Circle, all you know for sure is that on a certain day it might happen.”
The location decided on by Ekström and Ree was the town of Muonio in far northern Finland, home of the midnight sun in summer months. One night during dinner Ekström received a call from a frantic Ree.
“This night we thought we had a chance of catching the lights between 8pm and 10pm, but at 7pm Jaanus phones,” Ekström recalls. “He tells me to drop everything and drive to the frozen lake we had scouted earlier that day.”
Everything was falling into place. Ekström and his Audi S1 were in position, Ree had his camera set up ready to shoot and the northern lights were shining above them both. But one problem still remained. Ekström’s rallycross car had no lights! How would he be able to see where he was going?
“I had the lights above me and also the flash from Jaanus’s camera, but it was pretty dark out there most of the time I was driving,” Ekström remembers. “At times it was pitch black!”
We were so lucky to get that one night of clear sky
Mattias Ekström
It wasn't just the driver who was concerned by the lack of visibility, it was also a worry for the photographer.
“I placed a remote camera in the middle of the frozen lake and I hoped that Mattias could somehow avoid crashing into it,” Ree said. “After every two runs I changed the memory card just to make sure we had something, in case the camera got destroyed on the next run. Mattias came close to the camera a few times, but fortunately he never hit it.”
Ekström and Ree’s luck held out for more than two hours, during which time they combined to produce some of the most stunning imagery featuring a rallycross car that has ever been seen.
“We were on the frozen lake for about three hours before deciding that we were done. At that same moment, the northern lights disappeared,” Ekström recalls. “The next evening the sky was back to grey. We were so lucky to get that one night of clear sky.”
Having previously shot windsurfing and golf in the Arctic, Ree had a clear idea of what tools he needed to get the job done.
“I used sequence shots to create double exposure,” Ree said. “In terms of equipment I was using a Nikon D850 and I switched out the lenses frequently during the shoot. I also used two portable battery packs, both Elinchrom ELB 1200s.”
With his childhood dream of racing under the northern lights achieved, Ekström is now turning his attention to his latest all-new project. The Swedish speedster with a huge appetite for adventure is signed up to compete in the inaugural Extreme E championship.
“For the time being the plan is to do a good job in Extreme E, that’s my priority this year.” Ekström revealed. “If something else pops up along the road then we'll see. I’m one of those guys who is open to anything. For now, winning the first-ever season of Extreme E is my number one project for 2021.”