THE ELECTRIC DREAM MEETS REALITY
Audi has never done the Dakar before but it had an idea: for a new kind of range extender, rebranded as an ‘energy converter’. The difference now, compared to range extenders of the past, is the quality of the new, improved technologies.
So take the latest high-density lithium-ion battery and fit two powerful electric motors, developed by Audi for the Formula E series – one on each axle. Now install a lightweight 2.0-litre petrol race engine from a DTM car and tune that engine to be incredibly fuel-ecient at a fixed rpm, around 5000rpm. Now attach a third electric motor, this time used as a dynamo, powered by the engine to generate enough juice to charge the batteries on the move. Stick it all together, write a gazillion lines of software code, and you’ve got a long-distance 4x4 electric drivetrain.
Next, Audi had to find somewhere to try the concept out, and it chose the Dakar, which enjoys lots of prestige but hasn’t seen much technical progress recently. Most Dakar competitors still run big petrol or diesel engines – there are no charging stations in the desert.
Audi joined forces with Sven Quandt (of the BMW Quandt family), who’s made his name running the Dakar-winner X-raid team. Now he’s formed Q Motorsport, Audi’s Dakar partner. Together they developed the car for a brand new category. So, there’s the T1 class, Dakar’s top prototype division, mostly made up of mid-engined 4x4 buggies; then this year there’s a T1+ class, allowing more suspension travel, bigger 37-inch wheels and a minimum weight of 2000kg; but there’s also a new T1U class (for ‘ultimate’). This is designed to accommodate renewable-energy cars, and Audi is the first to enter this class with its ambitious RS Q e-Tron. A tricky ‘balance of performance’ formula was supposed to pitch T1U directly against the T1+, but until the start of this year’s event no one quite knew how competitive the Audi would be. Not even Audi.
By the third day (out a total of 14) it was clear that the RS Q was fast, when former WRC champion and three-time Dakar winner Carlos Sainz won Audi’s first ever Dakar stage. The team was jubilant, although they’d had some massive problems too. On the very first competitive stage (after the Prologue) Peterhansel hit a rock, which caught up in his rear wheel and broke the axle. He waited for hours for a support truck to fix his car. Then Sainz and co-driver Lucas Cruz got lost in the desert and took two hours trying to get their bearings. Sainz was furious and blamed some crummy road-book notes.
Carlos Sainz is quite a scary man.
UNTIL THE START OF THE EVENT NO ONE QUITE KNOW HOW COMPETITIVE THE AUDI WOULD BE. NOT EVEN AUDI
In the end the new Audi team and its pioneering electric car don’t come close to winning in 2022, the three cars finishing ninth, 12th and, for Peterhansel, a distant 57th. But looking towards next year it is a promising performance.
In the second half of the event, after fixing early suspension gremlins, the Audi RS Q wins three of the last five stages, enough to rue some feathers in the bivouac. Prodrive boss David Richards – whose own BRZ Hunter finishes second in the hands of Sébastien Loeb, behind the winning mid-engined Toyota Hilux of Nasser Al-Attiyah – questions whether their T1+ class could still be competitive next year.
‘Everyone knows that the Audi is way faster than all our cars now,’ he says. ‘It’s the fastest car by a long way. So we have to find a balance so everyone has an equal competition. And that’s the job for the FIA to achieve that. Otherwise, Audi would come and kill the sport. So we have to sort that out.’
The other great news for Audi is that its newer, younger driver (aged 43, against Sainz’s 59 and Peterhansel at 56), Mattias Ekström, proves such a big hit. The Swede is one of the world’s most versatile drivers, having raced with success in touring cars, DTM, WRC, rallycross and even NASCAR. In preparation for Audi’s assault he took part in his debut Dakar last year, failing to finish in a little two-seater Yamaha prototype buggy entered by Quandt’s X-raid operation. This year Ekström finds his rhythm and takes victory in Stage 8, and then wins Stage 9 too.
When I catch up with him in the bivouac he is modest about his progress. ‘On the normal gravel roads we are fine, but in the big dunes I am still learning,’ he admits. ‘When the route has a lot of dunes, I am too careful, too slow. If you go over the top too fast you will roll it and your Dakar is over. You can kill the car in one dune, and there are thousands of them! So to read the dunes and bring the right speed on the top is where I’m struggling the most.’
Ekström is a likeable guy. He reveals that he and his co-driver Emil Bergkvist like to listen to music on the road sections, connecting their in-helmet headphones to Spotify.
‘Yes, we play a lot of music!’ he reveals with a smile. ‘We play [Swedish DJ] Avicii and Ed Sheeran. This is to bring you in the right mental state. If you are a bit high on energy you are dangerous – for your car, your co-driver and yourself. If you are too low, you are too slow! So it’s about balancing your mood to be in the healthy energy level. The Ed Sheeran level.’
So the Dakar in 2022 is in a good state – revitalised by the move to Saudi Arabia, the new cars are cool, the competition is fierce and the drivers have got real character. Audi returns in 2023 – and as long as Sainz doesn’t get lost, Peterhansel doesn’t break his car and Ekström can rediscover his Ed Sheeran mojo, it could be the greatest, craziest most technically diverse Dakar yet. Audi plans to be at the 2024 event as well – and by then at least one team intends to be running on hydrogen.
It’s thrilling, dangerous, stupid. But the Dakar is also modernising – and the 2022 event marks a new dawn. The desert is going electric.
THE AUDI WON THREE OF THE LAST FIVE STAGES, ENOUGH TO RUFFLE SOME FEATHERS IN THE BIVOUAC