NEOM McLaren sporting director Gary Paffett says that the team’s new driver pairing of Mattias Ekstrom and Cristina Gutierrez “exceeded expectations” at the Extreme E season opener in Saudi Arabia.

The duo – Ekstrom the 2023 runner-up and Gutierrez the 2022 champion – joined in the off-season as McLaren looked to move on from being underachievers to championship challengers, and Paffet says it was a strong start to the team’s new era.

“My overall feeling from the weekend is really positive,” he told RACER. “We knew what Mattias and Cristina could do from looking from the outside at other teams. Now we’ve got them here, they’ve certainly lived up to and in some ways exceeded expectations.

“They’ve both been incredible in the car – Cristina just with her calmness under immense pressure and her ability to fight so close to people, and the moves that she makes on track. Her racecraft is really good. And Mattias with his creativeness, as always, opens up gaps that you don’t know that are there. They’ve both really done an incredible job.”

While a podium finish on Saturday and a Redemption Race win on Sunday represents a solid return, Paffett admitted that it hadn’t been plain sailing, with the team quietly battling persistent mechanical issues during the event.

“We haven’t had the smoothest of weekends. We’ve had a lot of problems with the car, and we still haven’t got to the bottom of the problem that we have,” he said. “I still don’t think we were at peak performance there with the car, so there was a bit of work to do.”

On Saturday the team grabbed its first podium since last May’s Hydro X Prix in Scotland, thanks to a genius move by Ekstrom who entered the first corner on the opening lap several meters wide, only to use the subsequent momentum to power up the inside in the second phase of the turn. It was a move that Ekstrom had planned in advance, but one that the team didn’t expect to work as well as it did.

“With Mattias you have someone that looks everywhere,” Paffett said of his former DTM rival. “He doesn’t just look from one waypoint to the next, drive there and look at the next one, he looks at the whole environment and where he can make a difference, where he can find a different line, especially in Turn 1 and things like this.

“I spoke to him after the course walk and it was already in his head; he already knew what he wanted to do. I think the first time he did it in Saturday’s final, it turned out better than he thought it would. We spoke about it and agreed it was worth a go and we were expecting one, maybe two places, and when he came out in the lead it was like, ‘That worked better than we thought.’

“So that’s what Mattias does — he’s creative and that’s going to be really important when you’re fighting against all these really top drivers.”

The team’s subsequent Redemption Race win on Sunday – which it got after missing out on a final berth thanks to a Traction Challenge time result tiebreaker – would have been a somewhat meaningless victory last season, but with it now awarding the same number of points as finishing last in the final, it carries more weight, offering real “redemption.”

“On Sunday we were struggling a lot with performance, so getting the result we did, the win in the Redemption Race, with that being worth extra points now, is key,” said Paffett. “In the final itself, we got the same amount of points as Rosberg, which is really key because they’re obviously going to be championship challengers, so I would say there’s a lot of positives, but I would also say there’s stuff we really need to get on top of if we want to be fighting for a championship. We showed, certainly from Saturday, that we can do that because we can fight with the best.

“It is because, like today, we didn’t make the Redemption Race because we were equal on points with Veloce, so it wasn’t a points thing, it was a Traction Challenge pace thing which is sometimes difficult because the circuit changes depending on what heat you’re in, so it’s not always a nice way for it to be decided if you make a final or not. To be in a Redemption Race with a competitive car and to be able to win and get the same points as someone in the final is really important.”