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Sainz maintains second place after Dakar’s first marathon stage

All three Audi crews emerge from a difficult fourth stage with reasons to be optimistic

The midway point on the 2024 Dakar Rally’s first marathon stage (a two-pronged test taking in a whopping 1,332km and every surface Saudi Arabia has to offer) after stage three meant it was time for Audi’s three driver crews and their rivals to bid farewell to the bivouac’s limited creature comforts and sharpen up the skills they learned at Scout camps.

Gone were the luxuries of a factory race team’s catering, campervans and physios, traded instead for a night spent in the near-freezing temperatures of the desert in tents and sleeping bags. That set-up process was a refreshing reminder that these most professional of drivers still have some amateur tendencies as they faffed pitching their shelters.

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“We have a perfect five-star hotel with a jacuzzi in the room and everything,” said Audi’s lead charge Carlos Sainz with a wry smile, as the reality was quite different. “It was a very cold night, really cold, in the tent,” he added. “Probably it was 5C this morning when we woke up.” There was no immediate chance to warm up either as, despite the abundance of innovations, a high and low voltage electrical system, a Formula E car’s 50kWh battery pack and a petrol engine that used to be found in Audi’s RS5 DTM car, the Audi RS Q e-tron doesn’t have the option to whack on the heated seats and steering wheel.

Thrown out of the window too was ample time to work on the cars and prepare for the following day, replaced by a short two-hour window on Monday for mechanics to service the cars and for drivers to download their brains to Audi Sport’s engineers. These are the terms and conditions of the marathon stage; no negotiations.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 4

But Audi has prepared meticulously for this most unpredictable of events and, as the support team and drivers parted ways, Audi Sport Managing Director Rolf Michl was assured in the team’s destiny was under control.

“We are very satisfied with the work that has been done,” said Michl. “Within two hours all cars were built up completely again. I think our base for the upcoming days is settled quite well.”

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That confidence was well-placed as, despite some setbacks, stage four was another positive one overall for Audi. All three crews were on the road before 8:10 am with 200km to cover on the road just to get to the start of the stage which ran from Al Salamiya to the Oasis city of Al Hofuf in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province - a new destination for the Dakar. It was a fast, 299km navigational minefield where the Audi trio all suffered to varying degrees, whether by their doing or otherwise.

Carlos Sainz, second in the overall classification, led the Audi charge on the second part of the marathon stage. But his run was not without its complications. Though navigation had been tough, the biggest obstacle, quite literally, was the car in front. Which happened to be a Toyota. It was the Hilux of Romain Dumas, who’d started three minutes before Sainz, so Carlos spent a significant spell in his dust and lost a chunk of hard-fought time. When Dumas did move aside, Sainz’s frustration was compounded as a puncture struck not long after. He also picked up a 10-second penalty for speeding.

Fourth at stage end was a strong salvage job but it was a case of what might have been for the three-time winner, who remains the closest challenger to Dakar leader Yazeed Al Rajhi, 4m29s in the lead. Told his time was not bad, Sainz replied: “But it should be much better.”

Stéphane Peterhansel has been effusive in his review of the stages so far but conceded that, despite its speed, stage four was “not really interesting”. Whether that view had anything to do with the headache he woke up with after his night in the desert was not clear, but Peterhansel cut a similar figure to Sainz at stage end. Admitting he was “not really in good shape”, Mr Dakar - the record 14-time winner of the event - and co-driver Edouard Boulanger made a navigation error that took them in the wrong direction for a couple of kilometres but they nevertheless ended up fifth fastest behind Sainz and his navigator Lucas Cruz.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 4

Starting second on the road did Mattias Ekstrom no favours following his monster drive to runner-up spot on stage three, as he and co-driver Emil Bergkvist faced a full pack of setbacks with a puncture of their own, navigation issues and a two-minute speeding penalty. The end result was 12th on the stage and a drop from third to fifth in the classification - though Ekstrom was still left looking on the bright side. “Not a great day in terms of driving or the result. But the good thing was the set-up changes we did from yesterday were good, so the car is the best it has been over the rally,” he said. “That gives me hope that we can have some better pace for the coming days.”

That optimism will surely be felt universally now the crews have been reunited with the support team in the Al-Hofuf bivouac, nestled in the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Al-Ahsa Oasis. Strategy is bound to come into play on tomorrow’s 129km stage five, as that short test precedes a new-for-2024 48-hour Chrono stage, as the Dakar heads into the desert of the hostile Empty Quarter. But for now, Audi Sport can reflect on an opening five days that have featured two stage wins and two more podiums, after which all three cars sit inside the top eight.

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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