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Carlos Sainz goes on a charge during Dakar’s opening stage

Heroics hoist Audi’s veteran into early fight for the lead despite three punctures

Plenty of positivity, perseverance and punctures summed up Audi’s experience on the Dakar Rally’s opening stage, one that ended with Carlos Sainz a superb second as he put his experience to great use.

It was a pretty miraculous result - not just because Carlos and co-driver Lucas Cruz achieved it from 48th in the starting order, but because they suffered no less than three punctures along the way. So you can imagine their surprise upon arrival at the stage-end stop control.

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“I thought when I arrived I had lost maybe 15, 20 minutes,” said Sainz. “When we reached the end we saw P2!”

Saturday was the last chance to catch a glimpse of the sprawling AlUla bivouac before the travelling circus of speed headed to El Hakineyah, site of the stage end.

The 414km stage was all-new for 2024. From above, you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for some kind of Martian landscape with an exploratory settlement plonked in the middle - fitting given the spaceframe-chassis prototypes leading the expedition of the rally’s opening stage.

Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 1

The ancient sand canyons and wide wadis framing AlUla would give way to a wild variety of terrain for the rest of stage one: loose gravel, boulder fields, narrow mountain passes… oh, and did someone say volcanoes? A smörgåsbord of hazards that can cause carnage, no matter how well-prepared the crews and cars are.

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Like the Prologue the day before, it was Sainz’s team-mate Mattias Ekström who started off strongest heading out of AlUla. Nobody led more of stage one than the Swedish duo of mighty Mattias and his cool as a cucumber co-driver Emil Bergkvist. Starting 10th-on-the-road (one they’d picked courtesy of setting the fastest time on the Prologue) they made excellent use of their late start by leading the first 225km. So effective had Ekström been that his lead went north of the two-minute mark after 170km.

But just as Ekström’s fastest Prologue time was a repeat trick from 2023, so was being thwarted while leading stage one, just as he had been 12 months earlier. See, that pace came at the cost of catching more cars, and more dust. The pair’s decision, with an ever-reducing number of cars ahead, was a measured one to reduce the pace so as to reduce the risk of a puncture on the rocky terrain. You know what’s coming, then…

“I tried to be smart because there was only three cars ahead of me at that moment, and I knew we had to finish without a puncture,” said Ekström. “Then we got one puncture and [also] lost maybe three or four minutes with a little detour.”

Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 1

No matter. The mantle was taken up immediately by Sainz - aided as he was by cars ahead having swept clear many of the rocks underfoot - whose shock turnaround even included a brief stint in the lead.

His third puncture of the day, which required him to refit and reinflate one of those that had already come off the RS Q e-tron with a slow-puncture, was still to come, but after more than 4.5 hours ‘El Matador’ still ended day one of 14 within two minutes of overnight leader Guillaume de Mevius in his Toyota Hilux. Ekström, meanwhile, was adamant it was still a “very good day” as he rounded out the top 10.

Stéphane Peterhansel’s day was more difficult. Seventh on the Prologue on Friday, he essentially opened stage one for everyone else - an unenviable task even for the record winner of the Dakar Rally. Understandably wary of the rocks that littered much of the stage, he opted for a cautious approach, but still came a cropper with two punctures in the final 30km. Peterhansel and co-driver Edouard Boulanger were limited to 27th as a result.

But they needn’t look far for inspiration; Sainz’s zero-to-hero turnaround is evidence of just how quickly things can change on the Dakar and the raw pace of the innovative RS Q e-tron.

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 Stage 1

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