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Ekström narrowly misses out as he battles Dakar’s puncture-filled third stage

Super Swede just nine seconds off stage win as he joins Sainz on the overall podium

The competitive stakes kicked up a notch on stage three of the 2024 Dakar Rally. That might seem obvious given little more than a quarter of this year’s competitive stage kilometres are complete, but there was so much more to factor in during today’s gruelling test.

For starters, the 733km stage through the heart of Saudi Arabia between Al Duwadimi and Al Salamiya included a mix of all five terrain types; most notably long chains of sand dunes and harsh, stoney sections, ready to ravage any misplaced tyres in an instant. It was also the first part of the first marathon stage of the rally, meaning drivers had to return the cars in something resembling an acceptable state as mechanics had just two hours of fraught, post-stage service before waving goodbye to the crews and heading to the next bivouac. So the risk versus reward balance for those behind the wheel and shouting directions was clear.

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Even in these early days of the Dakar (where the order remains volatile), Mattias Ekström has found his rhythm aboard his innovative, electrified Audi RS Q e-tron. The Prologue pacesetter was, in fact, arguably the least satisfied he’d been with the car so far on stage three - he felt it was “a bit softer than yesterday” - and his run was far from flawless, but you don’t speak with the gusto he ended the day with unless you’ve found your groove.

Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 3

Ekström came just nine seconds short of victory despite a late charge, which underlined the RS Q e-tron’s credentials among the elite on the rally raid scene. And but for a couple of wrong turns he might well have been leading the celebrations of another Audi stage win. Second was nevertheless a fine result, one that elevated him and co-driver Emil Bergkvist to third in the overall classification and gives him the advantage of not opening the road for stage four.

“We got a little bit lost taking the wrong route, [before] coming back, so we must have lost one minute in the beginning,” said Ekström. “But after that, the navigation was really good and I drove as fast as I could. Then there were some huge dunes, and on one I decided the wrong route so I had to make a U-turn, and maybe spent another minute there. But then from that point to the end I had a really good run.”

And the good news didn’t end there for Audi: despite all of the day’s potential pitfalls, all three cars ended in the top ten in the classification.

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But there was an almighty scare for the driver who started the day at the head of the pack, Carlos Sainz, who just about avoided rolling his car when he clobbered a hole while navigating through a dust cloud. A puncture, though frustrating, seemed a decent trade-off given the circumstances. “Not a perfect one for me,” was Sainz’s succinct stage-end verdict, though sixth in the final reckoning was enough to keep him within touching distance of new rally leader Yazeed Al Rajhi, whose Toyota Hilux heads for stage four and part two of the marathon stage a mere 29s up on the three-time Dakar Rally winner.

Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 3

It was a tougher day for Audi’s third drive, Stéphane Peterhansel. Following his 50th stage win in cars a day earlier, having to navigate the stage and carve the race route for the pack of cars behind him – across a buffet of wild terrain – wasn’t an easy task. But you don’t earn a record 14 Dakar wins without having a little bit of grit and determination about you, and so Peterhansel set about digging in, utilising the precious few tracks left by the motorbike competitors where he could. Peterhansel secured the eighth-fastest time at the stage finish but was hit with a four-minute penalty for speeding between two waypoints. Four minutes may sound disastrous, but out here in the desert a minute is equivalent to a tenth in F1. And there’s a long way to go yet.

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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