After making history at off-road racing’s toughest event in 2022 with the first finish and stage wins for an electric drive car, Audi is thinking bigger in 2023.
Driven by its ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ ethos of ‘progress through technology’, Audi has long used motorsport as the spark and ultimate proving ground for road-going innovations: honing quattro all-wheel drive in World Rally, hybrid power at the Le Mans 24 Hours, and all-electric drive in Formula E.
In 2022, Audi made history once again, developing the first car with electric drive to compete in the gruelling off-road Dakar Rally: the Audi RS Q e-tron. In the run-up to this year’s event, we’ve gone behind-the-scenes and under-the-carbon to find out what has changed, and how Audi is looking to go one better in 2023.
First held in the deserts of North Africa in the 1980s, then South America’s Andes mountains in the 2000s, the Dakar Rally has been based in Saudi Arabia since 2020. Its two-week 8500km route – featuring day-long competitive stages up to 470km in length – takes teams right across the Arabian Peninsula from Yanbu on the Red Sea coast to Dammam on the Persian Gulf.
Along the way, competitors have to tackle rugged roads, rocky canyons and the towering dunes of the remote Rub’ al Khali desert (ominously known as ‘The Empty Quarter’), all in searing 40C heat. It’s truly one of racing’s toughest and most gruelling challenges – especially for an electric car.
In 2022, Audi set out on the bold quest of using the Dakar Rally as potentially the toughest test bed for its e-tron technology. Bringing together experts from its successful Le Mans, DTM, World Rallycross and Formula E programmes, and adding the Dakar Rally-winning expertise of Sven Quandt and his Q Motorsport team for good measure, the result was the pioneering Audi RS Q e-tron.
The Audi RS Q e-tron’s pulsing heart is an electric drivetrain, with two motor generator units (MGUs) – one on the front axle, one on the rear – linked by a ‘virtual’ software-driven centre differential with variable torque distribution for true quattro all-wheel drive. Developed from the MGU05 that propelled Audi’s Formula E single-seater (and powered by an advanced high-voltage 50kWh lithium-ion battery), they generate up to 300kW, 0-100km/h in 4.5s, and a 170km/h limited top speed.
As recharging options on desert stages are somewhat limited, a third MGU05 acts as a generator – recapturing energy during deceleration from the advanced ‘brake-by-wire’ system. Also on-board is a TFSI petrol engine, developed from the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo used in the Audi RS 5 DTM race car. Operating in a narrow power band of between 4500rpm and 6000rpm to keep efficiency high and emissions low, it supplements the MGU to recharge the battery when needed.
As a result of all this advanced electric tech, Audi Sport has admitted that the Audi RS Q e-tron is the most technically complex car in its racing history. But, despite this, it performed near faultlessly on its debut: making history with all three cars finishing the world’s toughest rally on their first attempt, and scoring four stage wins.
Audi went one better in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in March 2022, dominating the field to score the first ever rally raid win for a car with electric drive. But Audi has never been a brand to rest on its laurels. Having won blue-riband events on every top-level track and rally stage around the globe, Audi has its sights firmly set on another slice of history with victory at Dakar. So, what has changed for 2023?
In early September 2022, Audi revealed the next-stage evolution of its innovative rally raid contender: the Audi RS Q e-tron E2. Its most striking change is an all-new body that is significantly sleeker for optimised airflow.
Even though the cockpit of the new Audi RS Q e-tron E2 is wider than its predecessor – giving the driver and navigator more room – the new aerodynamic concept, influenced by the shape of a boat’s hull, reduces drag by around 15 per cent. The new-look bodywork is also much lighter, lowering the car’s centre of gravity and opening up opportunities for improved suspension performance on rough terrain.
Another crucial change is a sustainable fuel, called reFuel, made from renewable sources. “At Audi, we’re always pursuing a consistent strategy of decarbonisation,” says Oliver Hoffman, Audi Board Member for Technical Development. “Our battery vehicles and renewable electricity are the lead technologies. To complement this, renewable fuels offer the possibility of running internal combustion engines in a more climate-friendly way. The Audi RS Q e-tron combines both systems.”
ReFuel is made up of 80 per cent sustainable ingredients – including e-methanol and ethanol-to-gasoline (ETG), which uses biogenic plant material as its starting point – cutting the Audi RS Q e-tron E2’s CO2 emissions by a further 60 per cent.
Finally, as desert racing isn’t solely about speed and efficiency – it’s also about reliability and planning for the unexpected – Audi has also made it much easier for crews to change tyres themselves in the event of a mid-stage puncture. In the gruelling world of rally raid, even the most basic link in the chain can decide a result., and that’s why Audi has retained its three driving teams for its second Dakar assault.
The three drivers (and their co-drivers) who will spearhead Audi’s charge on the 2023 Dakar Rally each bring a unique mix of skills and experience, boosted by the lessons they’ve learned driving the Audi RS Q e-tron in the 2022 event.
Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel is known as ‘Mr Dakar’, thanks to his six wins on a motorcycle and eight wins in a car. His co-driver is Edouard Boulanger. “I’ve driven many off-road cars in the desert, but the Audi RS Q e-tron is simply sensational in the dunes,” Peterhansel says. “The torque of the electric drive perfectly suits my driving style. This year we’re well prepared. At the same time, I know what can happen in the Dakar. We have a competitive car, but also tough competition.”
Carlos Sainz is another loose-surface legend: a three-times World Rally Champion, who has since added three Dakar Rally wins to his tally. He’s co-driven by Lucas Cruz. “For 2022, we told Audi: don’t underestimate the Dakar. And they didn’t,” Sainz says. “I’m really pleased with the steps we’ve made, and this year the car is even better. The lower weight and its distribution is more favourable now. As a result, the car drifts less, it feels more agile and it’s even easier to control.”
Finally, there’s former DTM touring car champion and World Rallycross ace Mattias Ekstrom: an Audi racing veteran who is enjoying his shift to rally raid. He’s co-driven by Emil Bergkvist. “Doing the first Dakar Rally I was very nervous, because you don’t know what to expect,” says Ekstrom. “This year I feel calm in one way, but the expectation rises a bit. But it’s an enjoyable pressure and excitement. The biggest improvement is that the car is really compliant on rough terrain. It just feels faster everywhere.”
In September, Audi headed to Morocco to give the new Audi RS Q e-tron E2 the ultimate nine-day field test, before entering all three cars into the 2022 Morocco Rally. Although Audi wasn’t eligible to score points in the event as the Audi RS Q e-tron E2 has been designed to 2023-spec regulations, the team learned a lot.
“Our entry wasn’t about sporting goals, so we set ourselves some very specific and different tasks,” says Audi Sport Head of Vehicle Operations Uwe Breuling. “We had a clear goal: complete as many kilometres as possible without any setbacks to prepare man and machine for the Dakar Rally. At almost 40C, the temperatures are extreme and push the car, but also the crews, to the limit. We learned a lot about the battery under extreme stress. On one stage the drivers and co-drivers maintained the Audi RS Q e-tron on their own without the team’s help.”
As Head of Audi Motorsport Rolf Michl adds: “Everyone in the team knows that no test can replace a race. The Morocco Rally was our dress rehearsal for the new car and the 2023 Dakar Rally. Even though we didn’t appear in the classification, every kilometre and every single day of the rally was as valuable for us as it was for the regular participants,” Rolf adds. “We were able to test the abilities of the driving teams and the cars in every situation on demanding stages and varied terrain.”
The last word, as Audi heads to the deserts of Saudi Arabia, goes to Sainz: “The new car is a big step forward in terms of reliability, but there are always surprises in our sport. We did such a good job last year. We just need to fine-tune a bit of everything. You have to respect every single day – I expect a tough Dakar. But I’m dreaming of winning the race. And why not? I’m sure it can come.”