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Audi holds Dakar Rally 1-2 after remarkable start to 48-hour stage

Carlos Sainz is the new rally leader with Mattias Ekström second as the halfway point approaches

Was the first half of Dakar 2024’s gruelling 48-hour Stage 6 the best day yet in Audi's three years of Dakar Rally competition? It would be hard to argue otherwise as, despite severe delays for Stéphane Peterhansel that wiped the record winner out of the reckoning, flawless runs from Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekström ensured they not only finished day one of the first-ever 48h Chrono stage first and second, but leapt into the same positions in the overall standings.

Unboxing might have boomed as a social media trend in the past decade but it’s hard to imagine the Dakar Rally crews getting overly animated about discovering - among other things - powdered leek and potato soup, isotonic sports drink tablets, packet noodles and baked beans in their military-style ration boxes ahead of their overnight stay in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter midway through the first-ever 48-hour Chrono stage.

Some relative luxuries were afforded - black tea and double quantities of plain biscuits to dunk for good measure - but there wasn’t much in the way of inspiration to be found in those overnight bags. Nor was much basic comfort on offer as, for the second time in four days, a night camping under the stars in plummeting temperatures had to do. Toilet facilities? A trench to the left of the nearest dune.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 6

That might all sound a bit primitive for this generation of social media savvy racers (personal devices were sealed away) but it’s another example of what makes the Dakar such an authentic challenge. Plus, the leading two Audi crews were unlikely to be too bothered. Both Sainz and Ekström had exceptional days out in the desert and, with the command to down tools for the day at 4pm, ended the day locking out the overall top two.

The requirement to park up was one of the stipulations of the new-for-2024 48-hour stage. It’s a test split over two days that separates the crews from their support trucks and sends them into the sprawling Empty Quarter, a sandy abyss the size of France and home to just 50 people on the Arabian peninsula. The 547km competitive distance was solely on sand, where drivers have to climb mountainous dunes without knowing what’s on the other side. As well as juggle fuel consumption so you’re not left stranded in the desert with an empty tank. Safe to say, it’s a tough day at the office.

Sainz ended the previous day cautious about his preparatory tactics for the 48-hour test, a loop stage starting and ending in Shubaytah. But having sacrificed time on stage 5, he and his Audi counterparts started stage six knowing they had two big aces in their hand: the first, favourable mid-pack starting positions on account of deliberately slow times a day earlier; the second, the electric drivetrain on the Audi RS Q e-tron, packed with a punch of torque to help overcome the steepest of peaks.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 6

Both of those were exploited to devastating effect by three-time Dakar winner Sainz as he set off from 17th in the order. So strong was his pace alongside co-driver Lucas Cruz that - assisted by the exit of previous leader Yazeed Al Rajhi, who rolled his Toyota Hilux - they’d taken the lead before the first time control. In the sea of dunes, Sainz was riding the crest of a wave and at the end of his day he was 4m31s ahead of the nearest car at the last comparable point before heading to his overnight stop, with a 16-minute lead at the head of the Dakar order.

Those margins were over Audi stablemate Mattias Ekström, who alongside Emil Bergkvist made fine progress as they clocked through the kilometres at great speed. Their RS Q e-tron was the first of just three cars to make it to the fifth break zone, having completed 435km - leaving just 112km between them and the stage end on Friday morning (Sainz and Cruz will restart 33km further back at the previous checkpoint).

Ekström was in a feisty mood, too, as the Friday morning restart rules dictate gaps of only a minute between cars as they set off at the crack of dawn. A World Rallycross champion, Ekström will be in familiar surroundings as he chases the dust of Nasser Al-Attiyah, hoping to catch and pass the Prodrive Hunter and put more distance between himself and the defending Dakar winner, third in the provisional classification, in the process.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 6

Sadly, Stephane Peterhansel suffered Audi’s first major setback on stage six. Mr Dakar had been fourth fastest on the stage at the 193km waypoint but later suffered a puncture on a hard landing that was compounded by mechanical issues. Damage to the hydraulic system made the wheel change a drawn-out affair and though Peterhansel and co-driver Edouard Boulanger did make it to the third overnight bivouac, having forfeited more than two hours on the stage their hopes of victory are now gone. The Dakar Rally is always waiting to strike, 14-time winner or not.

They are, however, still in the running, and the Audi challenge marches on. Successfully negotiating the remaining stage six kilometres on Friday will go a long way to setting Sainz and Ekström’s status among the favourites ahead of week two.

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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