THE all-electric Audi RS Q e-tron will face its third Dakar Rally challenge when the famous desert race gets under way in Saudi Arabia later this week, writes David Roy.
Taking place from January 5 to 19, Team Audi Sport is entering the two-week, 4,727km event with an unchanged driver line-up for the third year in a row and will be hoping to improve on its 14th place finish in 2023 - a campaign plagued by crashes and punctures.
Three two-man teams will participate, pairing Mattias Ekström with Emil Bergkvist, Stéphane Peterhansel with Edouard Boulanger and Carlos Sainz with Lucas Cruz.
The Dakar Rally comprises 12 special stages. Including all of the liaison stages, the teams will cover a total distance of 7,891km, often having to complete more than 400km per day on the special stages.
“That’s why it’s important not to lose your stamina during the rally,” emphasises Stéphane Peterhansel, a record breaking 14-time Dakar Rally-winner who was forced to retire from last year’s event following a crash which required hospital treatment for his co-pilot Edouard Boulanger.
“I have trained a lot on my bicycle. We have to be able to rest well during the nights, and we also pay attention to our diet.”
Three-hundred and forty-three participants have registered for the 46th edition of the Dakar Rally. They will start with 72 cars in the T1 and T2 classes, 42 additional models in the T3 class, 36 smaller SSV vehicles, 46 trucks, as well as 137 motorcycles and 10 quads.
“We are up against very strong and experienced competitors,” says Rolf Michl, head of Audi Motorsport.
Carlos Sainz, a two-time World Rally champion, agrees: “Definitely Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah and world rally champion Sébastien Loeb in the Prodrive Hunters are among them.
“Toyota also has a former winner in Giniel de Villiers and a number of good younger drivers in its line-up,” comments the rallying veteran, who survived an ‘off’ in his RS Q e-tron during last year’s Dakar Rally to return to the race.
“And we certainly won’t underestimate our new opponent, Ford, with former winner Nani Roma.”
One of the special challenges this year is a 48-hour stage through the Empty Quarter’s endless sea of sand dunes: taking place on January 11 and 12, it forms a joint stage – the sixth of the 12 – and with the motorcycle and quad racers taking different routes, drivers will have to navigate course without any advance tracks in the sand for reference.
Additionally, drivers must do without the regular service and race progress reports from their support team during this dual stage. If/when malfunctions occur, they must rely on each other to carry out repairs.
“This will be a big strategic challenge,” says Edouard Boulanger.
“But the second week will also be tough, because this year the rocky stages only come at the end. Then things can still change.”
Progress through technology
This year’s Dakar Rally regulations have limited the output of the car’s electric drivetrain to 286 kW, distributed between the front and rear axles. Dr Leonardo Pascali’s development team have also improved the RS Q e-tron in many areas, including the reduction of noise levels, increased impact protection and better performance under heavy load.
The electric drivetrain with high-voltage battery draws its power from an energy converter, and Audi is once again relying on the residue-based reFuel which it introduced on the last Dakar Rally, saving 60 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions.
“The new set-up improves comfort and is also very efficient,” emphasises Carlos Sainz.
“For me, it’s all about how we use the car perfectly in the sand,” adds Mattias Ekström, a Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters champion, World Rallycross champion, 24-hour race winner and electric touring car champion.
“It helps that we can drive over the dunes without needing to change gears.”
Audi was the first manufacturer to develop a T1U model for the Dakar Rally.
“The Audi RS Q e-tron has already caused quite a stir in its first two Dakar appearances,” says Michl.
“Audi was once again a technological pioneer in its outstanding motorsport history. We have initiated a paradigm shift. The combination of an electric drivetrain and a reFuel-powered energy converter is unique and very efficient.
“We know what we have already achieved. At the same time, we are looking forward to the next Dakar Rally with respect. It represents a major challenge.”