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Dakar’s fifth stage favoured strategy over raw speed

Audi has three cars in the top six and favourable starting positions for the first-ever 48-hour stage

It's not often in a race against the clock that you'd deliberately choose to forfeit time. But then again, the Dakar Rally is no ordinary affair. That was precisely the tactic of choice for the Audi crews on a fifth stage of the 2024 edition that represented anything but business as usual, as strategy for the days ahead came into play.

Wednesday’s 118km competitive course, which took crews into Saudi’s vast and appropriately named Empty Quarter for the first time, might look paltry compared to the rest of this year’s itinerary, but don’t be fooled by that distance. The road section enveloping it involved covering a mighty 645km, with 500km of that alone (the distance from Audi’s Ingolstadt base in Bavaria to Cologne) to be completed before the stage start. Once there, there was the small matter of a Dakar dilemma - how to approach the stage - with potentially rally-defining ramifications.

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That’s because the dunes of stage five were the appetisers for bona fide uncharted territory as far as the Dakar is concerned: the 48h Chrono stage, a two-day marathon stage, in the deepest reaches of the Empty Quarter’s vast nothingness where, tomorrow afternoon, the clang of a bell will silence the dunes and crews will have to slam on the anchors and come to a competitive halt, before heading to the nearest of seven virtual stopping points in the desert to again spend the night under the stars. No support teams, no information on how your rivals are doing, not even showers or toilets. Just a tent, sleeping bags, and a ration box. Oh, and the cars that will take to the stage first won’t have the handy safety net of motorbike tracks there to guide you.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 5

Therein lies the dilemma crews faced on Wednesday, which looked simple enough on paper: do you gun it on the way to the Shubaytah bivouac, earning a short-term boost in the classification possibly to the detriment of your performance over the next two days from the head of the running order? Or do you sacrifice time and bank an enviable starting position for what’s bound to be a gruelling two days in the desert? Making that decision, of course, was nowhere near straightforward.

But the dunes are the perfect playground for the gearless, instantly torquey Audi RS Q e-tron’s electric drivetrain and, while it was not reflected in the stage five times, that strength is what ultimately led all three crews to decide to play the waiting game.

Carlos Sainz (the best-placed of the Audi contingent in second overall ahead of stage five) was adamant he and co-driver Lucas Cruz “didn't want to be at the front” for the 48-hour stage but, such is the nature of the Dakar and this particular unknown, conceded “we will see in a couple of days if we chose correct or not”. His tactic, one team-mate Stéphane Peterhansel also adopted, was to stop on the stage before the finish. A deliberately lowly 28th dropped him to third overall, with stage winner Nasser Al-Attiyah leapfrogging him.

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Peterhansel had shown a handy turn of pace during the opening part of the test - he was fifth quickest at one point - but his own mid-stage break meant he ended up 14 seconds and two places behind Sainz. Mr Dakar, who nevertheless picked up two positions and is now sixth overall as he chases a 15th victory, neatly summarised what a predicament the crews had found themselves in. “It's a strategy that we thought about since two days ago but we only really decided [to commit to it] during the stage,” he said of the choice to slow up.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 5

Like Peterhansel, Mattias Ekstrom also made up ground in the overall classification as he rose to fourth courtesy of the eighth-fastest time on stage five. He admitted to feeling a little bit rusty in the sand, so Wednesday’s peaks were the ideal warm-up for the sea of dunes that monopolise the desert terrain over the coming two days - undoubtedly the two most important of the Dakar 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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