Inside Audi’s Doomed Second Try on the Dakar Rally


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Photograph: Audi

On the eve of the ultimate stage of the 2023 Dakar Rally, the bivouac is eerily quiet. That is the occasion’s roving middle of operations, vehicles and tents and every thing else that the rivals go away behind each morning, solely to search out it once more within the night, reconstructed in a totally completely different location. After practically 3,000 racing miles, the air of exhaustion is palpable.

On the eve of the ultimate stage of the 2023 Dakar Rally, the bivouac is eerily quiet. That is the occasion’s roving middle of operations, vehicles and tents and every thing else that the rivals go away behind each morning, solely to search out it once more within the night, reconstructed in a totally completely different location. After practically 3,000 racing miles, the air of exhaustion is palpable.

When you step away from the enormous tent that serves as canteen and important stage, all you possibly can hear is the thrum of turbines and air compressors, plus the hiss of the air weapons held by the poor mechanics assigned to scrub the mud from their workforce’s automobiles. The brown stuff is in all places, churned up into knee-deep ruts by Dakar’s greatest vehicles, which weigh a minimal of 20,000 kilos. It has the consistency and tenacity of the stuff you may discover caught to your shoe after a visit to the canine park. Fortunately, it lacks the odor.

Maintain strolling previous the brilliant lights and horns of the massive vehicles and also you’ll discover Audi’s nook of operations, dozens of tents and vehicles and assist automobiles, all there to help the workforce and its three automobiles competing on this yr’s race. Tonight, there’s just one Audi left, quantity 211, being torn down, cleaned out, and prepped for the ultimate day forward. On a picnic desk, an enormous Reiger Suspension coilover lays twisted and mangled, silent testomony to the punishment that took out Audi’s different two automobiles. 2023 was Audi’s second try on the Dakar Rally, and it didn’t go properly.

Full Disclosure: Audi wished me to witness its newest try at Dakar so badly, the corporate flew me all the way in which to Saudi Arabia, put me up in a few lodges, and supplied all of the hummus I might eat.

The bivouac on an early morning at the 2023 Dakar Rally.

The bivouac on an early morning at the 2023 Dakar Rally.
Photo: Tim Stevens

There’s no way to sugar-coat this: Audi had a tough time on the 2023 Dakar Rally. The workforce’s completely redesigned RS Q E-Tron E2, lighter and extra aerodynamic, had much less success than final yr’s inaugural E-Tron did when it got here time for the tires to hit the sand.

Piloting that new automobile was an enviable cadre, three groups of superstars. Rally legend and three-time Dakar winner Carlos Sainz and co-driver Lucas Cruz clearly had excessive aspirations, as did 14-time Dakar winner Stephane Peterhansel with Edouard Boulanger sitting shotgun. Lastly, two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom and navigator Emil Bergkvist returned, final yr’s highest finisher. Of the three, solely Ekstrom would full this yr’s occasion, coming in additional than six hours behind race winner Nasser Al-Attiyah and his Toyota after 14 punishing levels and three,000 timed racing miles.

Audi’s lackluster efficiency final yr, in 2022, was comprehensible. Whereas the radically designed, series-hybrid E-Tron was clearly fast, the Dakar Rally is such a punishing occasion that it’s uncommon for a brand new workforce to search out way more than ache out within the desert. Certainly, Audi dug up loads of that, Ekstrom coming in ninth, highest positioned of the trio.

However this yr? Audi clearly got here to win with the E2, upgraded and refined over final yr’s automobile, and powered by a form of Best Hits assortment of Audi Sport choices, together with electrical motors stolen from two of the corporate’s shelved System E racers and a 2.0-liter four-cylinder borrowed from Audi’s RS 5 DTM racer.

Image for article titled Inside Audi's Doomed Second Attempt at the Dakar Rally

Photograph: Audi

Within the E-Tron, that engine runs at a gradual 4,500 to six,000 rpm, spinning an electrical motor to generate electrons stored on the prepared in a 52-kWh battery pack. That battery then powers the 2 electrical motors, one per axle, offering a mixed 263 kW — at the beginning of the rally, a minimum of. Controversially, after Stage 4, the FIA granted Staff Audi one other 8 kW of energy, roughly 11 hp, after telemetry confirmed Audi’s automobile wasn’t as fast because the competitors. (Audi insists this modification was not prompted by the workforce.) After diddling just a few software program parameters, the E2 was re-tuned and powered up for Stage 5.

That smidge of additional energy didn’t assist a lot in what was a much more troublesome race than the yr earlier than. After complaints by many who the 2022 operating was too simple, this forty fifth operating of the Dakar Rally lined over 5,300 whole miles of various terrain spanning a lot of Saudi Arabia, together with the ominous Empty Quarter, mentioned to be essentially the most desolate spot on the planet. Of the 355 automobiles entered this yr, solely 235 completed.

(Facet notice: The Dakar Rally hasn’t truly gone wherever close to Dakar since 2008’s race was canceled on account of terrorist threats. The occasion has moved round loads, happening in South America for over a decade earlier than settling into the Center East like so many motorsports occasions appear to do as of late. It’s simple to be cynical about that change of venue, however to be truthful to the tireless Dakar organizers, there simply aren’t that many locations on the planet providing the 2 issues this rally wants: limitless, untouched terrain and a authorities keen to let tons of of rivals rip it to shreds, Mad Max-style.)

Image for article titled Inside Audi's Doomed Second Attempt at the Dakar Rally

Photograph: Tim Stevens

Audi’s three automobiles had been trying good after just a few levels. Ekstrom and Bergkvist set the quickest time within the first, prologue stage earlier than handing the lead over to Sainz and Cruz, who held it for the subsequent two days. Nonetheless, a rash of tire points — 14 punctures throughout the three Audis within the first 4 days — set the workforce on its heels. (Audi was removed from the one workforce with tire woes early on. Sebastien Loeb suffered three punctures on stage two alone.)

However issues solely went downhill from there. Sainz and Cruz suffered damaged suspension on Stage 3, however Stage 6 was the place all of it fell aside. Peterhansel had a significant crash whereas threatening to take the lead. The impression was so critical that he blacked out, later saying “I’ve no reminiscence of leaping that dune.” His navigator Boulanger needed to be air-lifted off of the stage on account of a again damage.

Sainz, too, had points, ripping a wheel off his automobile and dropping hours making repairs. However he was capable of proceed for just a few extra levels. On Stage 9, although, Sainz’s struggle got here to an finish when he took a dune with a little bit an excessive amount of pace, landed nose-first, and rolled. “It’s my fault, nobody else’s,” he mentioned later.

That simply left Ekstrom, who towards the tip of the race confirmed good tempo, racking up quite a few podium locations and threatening WRC god Sebastien Loeb, who had unparalleled pace within the ultimate levels. However, on the finish, 14th was one of the best Ekstrom might handle.

This coilover was designed for the punishment of Dakar. Imagine the force it took to bend it this badly.

This coilover was designed for the punishment of Dakar. Think about the power it took to bend it this badly.
Photograph: Tim Stevens

This type of end result is just not what Audi Sport expects when it goes racing. Audi’s skilled motorsport efforts are legendary, practically all coming with quick, resounding success. Quattro revolutionized the World Rally Championship within the Eighties and was so aggressive in IMSA GTO within the ‘90s that the principles had been modified to ban it.

However in fact, Audi’s dominant performances at Le Mans draw the best parallels right here. The R8, the R10 TDI, and R18 E-Tron had been all iconic performers, every one actually altering the aggressive panorama of that historic race. Audi swapping all the back-end of an R8 in 5 minutes on the 2000 operating of the race blew everybody’s minds. The R10 TDI’s shift to diesel energy was a head-scratcher on the time, however the enhance in effectivity received races. The R18 E-Tron, in the meantime, took the effectivity equation to a different stage. These automobiles all provided the right mix of marketing-friendly developments that provided real efficiency advantages on the observe.

Neither the RS Q E-Tron E2 nor its predecessor provide that form of flex. Whereas the E2 is certainly way more environment friendly than the competitors, carrying a most of 340 liters (80 gallons) of gas per stage in comparison with the five hundred liters (132 gallons) that Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah’s GR Toyota hauled, the discount is just not a aggressive benefit. There are not any dramatic mid-stage, timed refueling stops like there are at Le Mans, and whereas the E-Tron E2 is 176 kilos lighter than final yr, it’s nonetheless heavier than the competitors, about 220 kilos greater than Loeb’s Prodrive Hunter, which received six levels on the trot.

Likewise, in contrast to that eye-opening R8 at Le Mans, Audi’s Dakar entry doesn’t appear to be in any method simpler to repair than the competitors. Sainz misplaced an hour on Stage 3 struggling to vary a observe rod and coping with a caught wheel nut. Later, when Sainz gave a suspension arm to Ekstrom to permit him to complete stage seven, it took over three hours to finish. That’s not an unnecessarily very long time in comparison with discipline repairs from different groups, however neither is it any faster.

Audi’s repair tent at the bivouac.

Audi’s restore tent on the bivouac.
Photograph: Tim Stevens

Audi has seemingly introduced solely complexity to a race during which solely a fortunate few survive with out main, mid-stage repairs. At Audi’s pit within the bivouac, Rolf Michl, managing director at Audi Sport, mentioned, “For us, in fact, a transparent determination from Audi AG is electrification and subsequently, the choice was we don’t need to compete with a traditional combustion engine on this race. So we’ve determined to go essentially the most complicated method, with an electrical drivetrain and an power converter.”

Complexity’s positive — the R18 E-Tron actually was not a easy automobile — however you possibly can’t assist query the purpose. “Unbiased of what you’re doing in our automobile, it’s all the time 4 to 5 hours. It does matter if it’s the entrance, the center, or the rear,” Christoph Schroefelbauer, head of RS Q e-tron chassis improvement, informed me about repairs within the pits.

So what benefits are there? I requested Ekstrom, the only E-Tron driver to complete the race, about this. He mentioned the automobile was simpler to drive, with no worries about shifting or energy utility, and he’s a giant fan of the regenerative braking. “You by no means must heat them up, they’re already prepared,” he mentioned of the E2’s regen brakes. And given how highly effective that regen is, he’s optimistic that bodily brakes aren’t lengthy for this world: “It received’t take lengthy till you could have a automobile with no brakes,” he informed me. However since laws nonetheless require them, for now a minimum of, there’s no weight financial savings available with a regen-only setup. And although the automobile could also be simpler to drive, 2023 confirmed that it’s actually attainable to crash.

Image for article titled Inside Audi's Doomed Second Attempt at the Dakar Rally

Photograph: Tim Stevens

The RS Q E-Tron E2 clearly has the efficiency to win. It received the Abu Dhabi Desert Problem final yr and, when all went properly, was constantly one of many quickest automobiles at Dakar. It additionally proved mechanically dependable — the hybrid powertrain didn’t give Audi engineers any actual issues all through the race. Just one automobile wanted a battery swap on account of an as-yet unidentified fault (“a frozen sign,” Schroefelbauer informed me), however that was dealt with within the pits with out fuss.

The workforce has dedicated to coming again for subsequent yr’s Dakar. What, then, does Audi must do to win? It must run extra, for one factor. “It doesn’t matter how nice the automobile is for those who’re not within the circulate,” Ekstrom informed me, lamenting that he hadn’t had the chance to run extra rounds in preparation for this yr’s occasion. Although far and away the most important and most vital, Dakar is only one of 5 rounds on this yr’s World Rally-Raid Championship. Whereas Audi hasn’t but devoted the sources to run the total calendar with its full workforce, you may be positive essentially the most critical rivals will.

Finishing the Dakar Rally is an enormous achievement, an enviable life objective for a lot of. However once more, that’s clearly not sufficient for Audi Sport. With no automobile that dominates the way in which the Quattro, the R8, the R10, and the R18 E-Tron did, Audi merely can’t engineer its strategy to a victory this time. It wants to start out exhibiting as much as win. With a 2026 entry to System 1 looming, one can’t assist however surprise what number of extra probabilities Audi will get.


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