Can an electrified car take on the world’s toughest race? We joined Audi at the 2023 Dakar Rally to check it out.
Published On Feb 18, 2023 08:00:00 AM
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“I must not fear. Fear is the mindkiller”. If there was ever a quote to describe what sort of attitude you need to take on the fabled Dakar Rally, this one from Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel from 1965 Dune would be it.
Every year, some of the most fearless individuals gather to conquer the harshest conditions you can race in. Winning is great, but simply completing the rally is considered a feat to celebrate.
To try and take on the Dakar Rally with an electrified prototype is, well, bonkers. But then again, motorsport exists to push the very boundaries of what machines are capable of doing. And what better than the ‘toughest race in the world’ to put electrification to the test?
Enter the RS Q e-tron – the first of its kind to compete in the Dakar. With plans to go all-electric by 2026, it makes sense that Audi wants to showcase the possibilities of electrification on motorsport’s global stage. But with stages ranging from 350km to 920km, it’s nearly impossible to tackle the Dakar with battery power alone. So Audi turned to resurrecting the range extender.
Audi itself describes the car as a “laboratory”. You have three electric motors – one powering each axle and one generator. A DTM-sourced 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine acts as an energy converter that charges the battery on the go. This set-up means the RS Q e-tron is overweight by design. But this year’s car (now carrying the E2 suffix) has shaved off dozens of kilos through some clever weight-saving measures, which boosts efficiency as well. The whole sustainability quotient is taken a step ahead, with the TFSI engine running on a new biogenic fuel made from residue-based products. This is said to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 60 percent.
So yes, the RS Q e-tron isn’t a true-blue electric car, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. For example, the new E2 uses a maximum of 340 litres of fuel in a single stage, compared to 500 litres used by the combustion-engine entries. Audi driver (and former DTM and World Rallycross champion) Mattias Ekstrom has even described it as more “fun to drive”.
And then you have the team’s star-studded driver line-up, with rally legends Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz joining Ekstrom. Audi means business when it comes to the Dakar Rally; you only have to look at their section of the bivouac for further proof – with multiple sprawling structures standing in stark contrast to the makeshift tents used by some of the smaller independent competitors.
This year’s Dakar Rally was the longest ever held in Saudi Arabia, with competitors covering nearly 8,900km across 15 days. The days are long and tough, and with roadbooks handed just minutes before a stage, you need to remain alert. One small mistake, and the consequence could be disastrous.
In fact, while speaking with Autocar India, Ekstrom said that being “sharp and consistent the entire day” is probably the most difficult part of the Dakar Rally. “The days are very long and physical, so to stay focused for 400km+ is a challenge.” While you can prepare for long days and arduous terrain, what you can’t prepare for is unexpected weather. The 2023 edition saw some torrential rainfall that even resulted in a stage being cancelled for the bikes and quads.
The rain changes the very nature of the land, turning soft sand into a hard, almost metal-like surface. There were some advantages to this, as Sainz pointed out – the lack of dust made it easier to trail competitors. But it ended up catching out some of the best in the business.
Only 235 of the 355 vehicles that entered Dakar 2023 made it to the finish. “In some respects, the Dakar Rally has returned to its roots this year,” observed Sven Quandt, team principal of Q Motorsport.
“The relentless pace, the setbacks for a number of top drivers, correspondingly large shifts in the standings, the length of many stages and the challenging terrain are all reminders of the past.”
The RS Q e-tron made quite a strong Dakar debut last year, with four stage wins. Audi started the 2023 edition on strong footing, with victories in the Prologue and Stage 1, but things went awry from there on. A series of punctures and accidents saw the team go from being the frontrunner to struggling to simply make it to the finish line.
By the time we joined the Audi crew to witness the rally in person, Peterhansel had already retired after crashing on Stage 6 – further proof that the desert spares no one, not even a 14-time Dakar champion. The No. 204 Audi took a heavy fall, but Audi’s head of Motorsport, Rolf Michl, revealed that it could have still continued the rally with some repairs. However, co-driver Edouard Boulanger suffered a vertebral injury and was flown out to Germany for treatment. Peterhansel, meanwhile, says he has no memory of the accident.
Carlos Sainz met with a similar fate just days later when his Audi rolled upside down while tackling a dune on Stage 9. The 60-year-old Spaniard even tried to return to the event, but eventually had to retire. In the days following, scans revealed that he suffered multiple spine fractures.
This left Ekstrom and co-driver Emil Bergkvist as Audi’s sole remaining challengers. Despite several setbacks of his own, Ekstrom did make it to the finish line, albeit down in 14th place. But he showed some promising pace, finishing in the top four in each of the final six stages. Through all the challenges, the team spirit remained strong. Camaraderie between competitors has always been a highlight of the Dakar Rally. We got to see that in action in Stage 7 when Ekstrom damaged his car’s suspension after hitting a rock.
The Swede was in for a long wait for the service truck. However, at this point of time, he was chasing a podium finish, while Sainz had already lost a lot of time due to previous incidents. Keeping this in mind, Sainz decided to stop and supply parts from his own car, giving Ekstrom a fighting chance.
The 2023 Dakar Rally didn’t go to plan for Audi. But that doesn’t mean it was a complete failure. The team scored 14 stage podiums and for all the difficulties they faced, the actual drivetrain never proved to be an issue. “The main thing is that the concept with the RS Q e-tron worked. Unfortunately, when you go racing, sometimes you have bad luck. But we keep on pushing,” remarked Michl.
Ekstrom echoed that, saying it was now time for Audi to “go home, analyse, re-think, make a new plan and come and try again next year”. Indeed, Audi has already committed to competing in the 2024 Dakar Rally.
For 2023, we’ll see the RS Q e-tron back in action in the Morocco Rally later this year. And the team is evaluating other events as well; after all, the only way to continue developing is to keep trying.
Al-Attiyah, Benavides win Dakar 2023
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