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Teamwork preserves Audi’s Dakar Rally lead

Mattias Ekström’s stage 10 sacrifice keeps Carlos Sainz out in front with two days to go

With just two stages remaining of this year’s Dakar Rally, Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz have ended another day in the lead. However, a whole team effort was required to make that happen. Most notably, from their Audi stablemates Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist, saving the day by proving that sharing is indeed caring when it comes to punctured BF Goodrich tyres.

Despite a mix of terrains and a number of passes that presented navigational headaches, stage ten’s 371km loop wasn’t expected to involve major hazards. Oh, how wrong those predictions proved to be. “Yesterday in the briefing they said this stage will not be really complicated; it was a shock,” said Stéphane Peterhansel. “There weren’t a lot of rocks, but all the rocks [that were there] were really aggressive.”

Audi’s RS Q e-trons had to carve through vast canyons and confusing dirt tracks. Despite Sainz and Cruz picking up three punctures, the swift action of both supporting Audi crews ensured their hopes of victory were not buried in the nearby and deeply impressive stone-cut tombs of the Hegra UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 10

Sainz started second on the road behind his only remaining rival, Sébastien Loeb, after they’d locked out the top two positions a day earlier. Things began well for the Audi driver as he passed Loeb through the opening part of the stage - a winding, stoney track - when the Prodrive driver stopped. But then Sainz faced problems of his own.

“I continued slowly [in that section] because it was very, very rocky,” said Sainz. “But unfortunately I got a puncture. Then I got a second puncture. And then I got a third, which meant I had to stop. I tried to repair it, but the hole in the tread was too big.”

By this point, Loeb was back ahead and slicing into Sainz’s lead. What at the start of the day had been a lead of 20m33s was at one point reduced to just 4m13s in the virtual classification as Sainz’s RS Q e-tron sat stationary 240km in with a slow puncture. Cue international rescue through Super Swedes Ekström and Bergkvist.

The duo - winners of stage eight two days earlier but out of contention following suspension problems a day before that - arrived on the scene and without hesitation offered up a replacement tyre for their rally-leading team-mates plus two more for good measure to ensure any further punctures were accounted for. That ultimate sacrifice, assisted by Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger as they too parked up and mucked in for the greater good, came at a price as Ekström and Bergkvist then had to wait alone, in the baking desert, for hours until the Audi service truck and replacement tyres arrived in order to complete the stage. You don’t get that in Formula One.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 10

Tyre changed, it wasn’t quite plain sailing from there for Sainz as he pushed to recoup lost ground, with four slower cars ahead that proved “very difficult” to overtake in the dust of the AlUla canyons’ sandier tracks. But he did claw back crucial time on an issue-free run to the finish, ending the stage well down the order in 25th but having limited his losses to Loeb, who had two punctures of his own, to 7m11s.

“In the end we lost seven minutes, but I thought in one moment the game was over when we ran out of tyres,” said Sainz, who will carry a 13m22s lead into Thursday’s penultimate stage. “We needed to wait for Mattias; thank you very much to him for giving us a couple of tyres so we could continue.”

While Ekström’s stage was a write-off following those mid-stage exchanges of rubber, Peterhansel  was still on hand to shadow Sainz to the finish, ready to be deployed at the first sign of trouble. That never arrived and he ended the stage 15th fastest despite having picked up two punctures of his own before the 80km mark.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 10

So, a reprieve for Sainz ahead of the last significant test of the rally on Thursday - but oh what a test it’s due to be. The 420km stage that takes crews from AlUla to the Red Sea port city of Yanbu is arguably the toughest this year's Dakar Rally has to offer. Set in the same area as last year's treacherous and testing second stage, it’s dominated by extremely rugged terrain with plenty of sharp stones making it a prime candidate for more tyre trouble. That risk, and the high-stakes nature of the battle for victory, makes it a must-watch affair.

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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