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Audi’s 2024 Dakar campaign has got off to a winning start

Mattias Ekström has smashed the Dakar’s Prologue time trial for the second year in a row

The Dakar Rally is motorsport’s great leveller. 8,000 kilometres and 14 days of organ-bruising racing (across the most challenging and hostile terrain Saudi Arabia can throw at you) tends to do that. And this year – the 46th running of the iconic endurance race – is set to be one of the most demanding rally raids ever. But Audi is off to a flying start thanks to motorsport Swiss Army Knife, Mattias Ekström. 

Having been humbled by last year’s rally, optimism, rather than any specific target, is the name of the game for Audi’s third attempt at the formidable Dakar. But it’s come prepared. Armed with an upgraded RS Q e-tron, the famous four rings has already made an impression on the paddock with the fastest time during the Prologue. 

The Prologue is a pseudo qualifying for the main Rally. Think of it as 27km sandy soupçon. A time trial that determines the starting order for the main event but doesn’t count towards the overall standings. Instead, the top 10 finishers get the chance to pick their preferred starting positions. Why’s that? Because unlike other forms of motorsport, in Rally Raid being first isn't the favoured option. 

See, there’s a complicated and strategic balance to be struck when it comes to optimal starting positions. Opening the stage is to be avoided; that’s the hardest place to navigate from as there are no tracks to follow. In simpler terms, why do all the hard work for everyone else? But equally, run last and you’re at risk of the deep ruts that form with each passing vehicle unsettling the car (not to mention the need to negotiate the blinding, choking dust clouds that hang in the air between passes). Confusingly for a race, you actually want to start after some people have left. 

So the Prologue really is the morning warm-up equivalent to the rally’s ultramarathon test. But don't be fooled as this year’s Prologue was no tame affair. Set against the other-worldly backdrop of AlUla with vast sandy stretches and rocky passes to negotiate, the Prologue served up more than enough spice to ensure the 778-strong field was up to task.

Audi Dakar 2024 Prologue


Nobody proved that better than Mattias, who led the way with the fastest time of all. For a second year in a row, in fact. The super Swede and two-time DTM champion (the tin-top category where the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo petrol engine keeping the RS Q e-tron’s batteries topped up was honed) and navigator Emil Bergkvist flew out of the dusty blocks. What Ekström characterised as a “clean” run through a stage requiring “a lot of navigation” ended with the earliest of bragging rights and a 23-second margin over Seth Quintero, making his debut in the T1 class in a Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux.

Having come first, Ekström has chosen to start 10th on Saturday with his team-mate Stéphane Peterhansel being the first of the trio of Audis due onto the stage. Having finished seventh, he picked fourth in the order.

Like Ekström, Peterhansel - the King of Dakar, with 14 wins (eight on motorbikes, six in cars) - had his sights on an all-out assault on the Prologue. But a small mistake, which ended with him running 400 metres deep at a junction, left him in two minds about what to do next.

“After that I wondered if it was necessary to continue to push and reduce speed at the end of the stage, to have a bad time and not start at the front tomorrow morning,” said Peterhansel. 

Carlos Sainz, meanwhile, admitted to briefly getting lost on the Prologue stage in his RS Q e-tron. That was reflected in the times; the four-time winner was 48th, 2m18s behind Ekstrom, and will start down the order as a result. But it’s a long race, where anything can happen. So stay tuned for more updates when the 2024 Dakar kicks off for real (by driving up a volcano, natch) tomorrow. 

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.

Audi Dakar 2024 Prologue

 

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