Dakar Rally 2022: Audi's RS Q e-tron electric challenger
Audi is taking on the world’s toughest off-road event with its RS Q e-tron bespoke electric car. We talk to the engineers and drivers involved…
First run in 1979, the Dakar Rally is not as old as some storied motorsport events, such as the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500 or Le Mans. Nonetheless, it has witnessed big changes – not least shifts in location, from West Africa for much of its history, to South America between 2009 and 2019, and now to the Saudi Arabian desert, where the 2022 edition begins in early January.
It’s also at the forefront of the huge changes that are affecting the entire automotive industry these days. Recent updates to the rules have thrown open the door for all manner of innovative electrified powertrains to be used on the gruelling two-week-long race, and one of the first companies to grasp the opportunity is Audi. Having pulled out of Germany’s domestic DTM touring-car series and ceased its involvement in Formula E, the German brand was left with significant motorsport capability to be used elsewhere.
The Dakar – previously conquered by the likes of Citroen, Mitsubishi, Peugeot and Volkswagen – is where it has set its sights, and the RS Q e-tron is the unmistakable and fiendishly complex vehicle it has built for the task. While the name mixes elements from several Audi road cars, this is in every way a brutal and bespoke off-road racer.
As the ‘e-tron’ part suggests, however, it differs in a key way from Dakar monsters of the past, because its wheels are turned by electric motors. And an unsurprising lack of charging points in the remote Saudi desert means the battery has to be charged ‘on the go’ by a four-cylinder petrol engine, making this the world’s wildest range-extender. It’s the type of project you could imagine being years in the making, but Audi Sport in Neustadt, Germany – where Auto Express travelled for a behind-the-scenes look at the project – was given less than 12 months to go from first concept to the cars coming together in its workshops.
According to head of development Stefan Dreyer, veteran of the marque’s all-conquering Le Mans programmes: “It was a really extreme timeline to develop a car as complex as this. It’s like an LMP1 car ‘plus’ – the next level.”
The saving grace for Dreyer and his hard-working team is that the RS Q e-tron uses some already-developed technology. Its electric motors are from Audi’s Formula E car, and its range-extender petrol engine was previously found at the heart of the A5 DTM machine. But the project was hardly a case of simply lashing some cast-aside parts into a hastily constructed chassis.
“From a sustainability point of view, it’s good to use existing components,” Dreyer said. “But the use case was completely different. In the desert we’re dealing with altitude, jumps, dirt and dust, so we had to do a lot of adaptation and modification to make the car as reliable as possible in the time we’ve had.
“And just looking at the components individually wasn’t enough. It has to work as a system; that was the biggest challenge. The motors, battery and engine all speak different languages, so we had to teach them to communicate using software.”
In addition to its in-house talent, Audi also asked Sven Quandt, the veteran Dakar driver, co-driver, mechanic and engineer who has masterminded wins by Mitsubishi and MINI, to bring his considerable experience to bear on the project. “Good suspension is everything on Dakar; it can overcome a 100bhp deficit,” he explained, before highlighting the RS Q e-tron’s single shock absorbers as the element he’s most proud of. “This is something special. Normally we run double shocks because of how much the cars weigh, but a single shock reduces your unsprung weight. The Audi comes in at more than two tonnes; the trick was designing a single shock that can deal with that weight and the same conditions as a double one.”
Experience has also been the watchword in selecting Audi’s three-strong driver line-up, which is spearheaded by 56-year-old Stéphane Peterhansel, universally acknowledged as ‘King of the Dakar’, with 14 victories to his name. Never one to rest on his laurels, the Frenchman is enthusiastic about exploring the new possibilities opened by the RS Q e-tron.
“It’s probably more fun to drive than a combustion-engined car,” he said. “In the dunes, you can play with the torque, you don’t need to shift gears and there’s always a good response, so you can focus on the line you’re driving. We have thousands of parameters to adjust with the traction and braking, so we’re really developing a new style of driving with this car.”
Peterhansel is joined by Spain’s Carlos Sainz, best known as a double World Rally champion, but nowadays a true Dakar old hand, having participated in 15 editions and won four. As with Peterhansel, he’s fired up by the challenge of such a new and different project so late in his career.
“The car is super-effective in the dunes, and even if we’re at a certain disadvantage because of the weight, there are advantages elsewhere,” he told us.
“Normally with Dakar cars, you get a lot of wheelspin when the boost comes in, but here you can modulate the throttle nicely. The regenerative braking is very effective, too; it’s a new situation for me to brake when lifting off as well as with the hydraulic brakes. I’m only discovering this, but I like it.”
Audi’s third driver is Mattias Ekström. The versatile Swede is a dab hand at touring cars and rallycross, but a relative newcomer to off-road racing, having only entered his first Dakar in 2021. “I think I’ve learned more in the past 12 months about a new category than I’ve ever done in my life,” he declared. “I was never on such a steep learning curve in DTM and rallycross; I more or less grew into them slowly and gently. This time it’s very different.”
It’s left to Quandt to set out Audi’s cautious expectations for year one. “A finish will be a victory,” he states. “The win would be cool, but we’re on a learning curve. It’s four or five thousand kilometres of terrain we haven’t driven on, in temperatures we haven’t duplicated in testing, going from hot and humid in the beginning to cold and dry later.
“With a car this complex, opening so many doors in history, we can be happy with a finish. If we manage more, then we will have done a very good job.”
Meet Audi's desert competitors...
Experienced crews and hi-tech machinery that will also be heading out on the sand.
Bahrain Raid Extreme
The Bahrain-backed, Prodrive-designed Hunter had a tumultuous debut on the 2021 Dakar, although Spaniard Nani Roma managed to salvage fifth place in the final standings. For 2022, the car has been heavily redesigned to comply with the latest rules, and now runs on biofuel. Roma and World Rally legend Sébastien Loeb both return, now joined by Argentinian Orlando Terranova.
Although running in the trucks class, and therefore not competing directly with Audi, French company Gaussin is also using an innovative drivetrain for its Dakar assault. The H2 Racing Truck has a hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain, with a pair of 300kW electric motors, an 82kWh battery and an 80kg fuel tank. The entry comes ahead of Gaussin launching a range of five hydrogen fuel-cell truck models for road use.
French outfit GCK is another team with its eye on future propulsion technologies; it plans to enter the 2023 edition with a hydrogen fuel-cell off-roader called the e-Blast H2, which has already been showcased in prototype form. In the interim, team owner/driver and 10-time Dakar entrant Guerlain Chicherit is piloting the biofuelled GCK Thunder, based on Peugeot’s recent works entries, for 2022.
Toyota Gazoo Racing
Toyota is introducing an all-new Hilux at the Dakar. Said to be “the biggest technological leap for the programme since its inception in 2011”, it runs a new 3.5-litre twin-turbo diesel V6 with 400bhp and 660Nm of torque, plus increased suspension travel and bigger tyres. Drivers include Nasser Al-Attiyah from Qatar and South African trio Giniel de Villiers, Henk Lategan and Shameer Variawa.
Now read the latest on Audi's new Q6 e-tron, due to be launched later in 2022...