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Audi leads the Dakar Rally at its halfway point

Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekström end 48-hour stage second and third to consolidate 1-2 overall

And breathe. Seven days after fierce racing began in AlUla, Audi has reached the halfway point of the 2024 Dakar Rally. Better than that, it’s got a stranglehold on the top two positions.

Three-time Dakar Rally winner Carlos Sainz tamed the relentless demands of the dunes across two days on the 48h Chrono stage, bringing his RS Q e-tron back from the Empty Quarter to the safety of the Shubaytah bivouac with the second-fastest time to cement a 22-minute advantage in the classification over Mattias Ekström, who backed his Audi stablemate up with third on the stage.

The foundations for that form were laid two days ago, when all three Audi crews forfeited time on stage five to prioritise a later, better starting position for this monstrous two-dayer – an unforgiving loop stage in the heart of the all-encompassing Empty Quarter with a mandatory overnight stop. Sainz was adamant he’d only be able to say with certainty whether that was the right call when he’d completed both days. Given he’d reclaimed top spot and watched his main rivals fall by the wayside, the answer would surely be emphatic. “I think it was the right decision,” he said, affording himself a smile, in a typically understated manner.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 6b

With the gloss of that 1-2 overall and the return to the familiarity of Audi team surroundings, it would be easy to brush over what a challenge the crews had been through. But Sainz was keen to emphasise just how rough the conditions had been; by the time he stopped for the night on day one he and co-driver Lucas Cruz had been navigating the mesmerising, deceptive swirls of the sand dunes - broken in some places, soft in almost all - for five hours and 22 minutes. That too after a 108km road section just to get to the start line. 

“It was very difficult to read the dunes, very difficult to pass some dunes, so there was a lot of stress due to the time in the car and the nature of the stage. I think since we’ve been here in Saudi Arabia [from 2020 onwards] it has been one of the toughest stages, if not the toughest,” said Sainz. “It was difficult physically and mentally to always keep looking for the broken dunes and easy to make a mistake. But we’re happy we're past this very difficult part of the rally.” Having led stage six at the time of the day-one halt, he ultimately ended up second and two minutes down on winner Sebastien Loeb, with only one drama to report: a short stoppage towards the end of the stage.

Day two was a more straightforward affair not because the challenge was any less extreme but because there were simply fewer stage kilometres to tick off to complete the 547km test, but it came with a bleary-eyed 5.30am wake-up call following a night on military-style rations in one-man tents and sleeping bags, as temperatures again plummeted in the desert. “I must say well done to ASO for the fantastic stage during these two days,” Sainz said in praise of the Dakar Rally organiser. “But for me, without showering or anything, I think one night of this is enough. I hope they don't get very excited and add more of these in the future!”

If Sainz thought he had it bad, Ekström’s night was lonelier. His stunning pace from seventh in the order on day one meant his Audi RS Q e-tron was one of only three cars to make it to the furthest stopping point before pitching up for the night. “That wasn't so romantic! It was very dark - and boring,” he said of his and co-driver Emil Bergkvist’s night under the stars.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 6b

The Swede, a double champion in the tin-top DTM series and a World Rallycross title holder, was then second on the road when running resumed at dawn, but later found himself leading the way for everyone when Nasser Al-Attiyah stopped with a broken steering arm. A boost to Audi’s hopes of victory, as five-time Dakar winner Al-Attiyah had been third behind Sainz and Ekström overnight but was now out of the fight, but of little help to Ekström’s stage progress as the cartographer setting the course through the endless sand valleys. That accounted for a chunk of the 10m55s he lost to stage winner Loeb, though he reckoned six minutes were also lost digging the car out of a dune on day two.

The third electrified RS Q e-tron might be out of the reckoning, but Stéphane Peterhansel, co-driver Edouard Boulanger and engineers all performed heroics just to get the car to the stage end. More than two hours were lost on day one to a puncture, and associated hydraulic jack failure (one that also took out the power-steering), on a heavy landing that required the crew to disassemble part of the car’s bodywork. If that wasn’t enough misery, they then lost 45 minutes right before their restart time when an alarm flashed up while refuelling, with the car requiring outside assistance before they could get in. They nevertheless pushed on and are 22nd overall. 

You’d have forgiven Peterhansel for letting frustration get the better of him but his Dakar spirit was on full show as he recognised the bigger picture; he can still pursue stage wins (and become the record holder in the process), and there are two well-placed Audi cars whose bids for victory he can support. “The good news is that we have two cars at the front. I'm really happy for Carlos and Mattias,” said Peterhansel. “For us, the only thing we can do is to help the other crews - the team - to get the best result possible.”

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 6b

The picture looks rosy, with Sainz’s advantage over third-placed Loeb - the last car within an hour of the rally leader - standing at 29m31s heading into the rest day. But with almost 4,000km still to cover in week two, there are no foregone conclusions - a point Sainz, ever the pragmatist, stressed as he was asked about the favourable position he finds himself in.

“If you said before the week we would be leading I would say I am happy,” he said. “But it’s still a long way. It’s still very open.”

For more Audi performance stories, head this way

*This vehicle shown here is the Rally Dakar vehicle that is not available as a production model. Closed course, professional driver. Do not attempt. The Audi RS Q e-tron combines an electric drivetrain with an energy converter system comprising a TFSI engine and generator.

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