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Sainz retains Dakar Rally lead but Ekström hits trouble on stage seven

Audi has a tough start to the epic rally’s second week but Sainz still carries a 19-minute advantage

If the first week of the 2024 Dakar Rally left Audi feeling positive (a 1-2 in the overall classification representing its best showing on the off-road enduro to date), then the opening day of week two showed that the Dakar Rally doesn’t do sympathy - even if Carlos Sainz retained the overall lead.

“We stay humble and we have to stay focused because the second week is as tough as the first one was,” cautioned Audi Sport Managing Director Rolf Michl, and with good reason too. After all, the Dakar is an event that takes in almost 8,000km, where one moment is all that’s needed to render days of blood, sweat and tears meaningless. In the blink of an eye, the snap of a suspension, things can change. Mattias Ekström found that out the hard way on stage seven as the Dakar bit hard.

Stage seven, taking the crews from Riyadh – the Saudi Arabian capital and rest day location – back to Al Duwadimi, was billed as a potential car breaker. A test that the Dakar itself described as a “mishmash”. That reputation was earned for its mix of terrain, multiple changes of direction early on, navigational cul-de-sacs, and an eye-watering 873km to cover from point-to-point. Plenty to take in, then, but nobody foresaw Ekström and co-driver Emil Bergkvist coming unstuck a mere 47km into the serious stuff.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 7

On one of the stage’s faster sections, not far past a sequence of mazes through rocky canyons, the Swedish duo – flying high having started the day second in the classification – came a cropper when they suffered a technical issue with the car’s left-rear suspension that brought them to a halt.

Seatbelts off and hydraulic jack deployed, they quickly set about inspecting the left-rear corner. Help was soon on its way too from stablemates Stéphane Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger – Audi’s sacrificial mechanical lambs at this point on account of their own time-sapping issues at the end of last week – who stopped to see what assistance could be offered. Honourable though that was, there was no sense in cannibalising their Audi RS Q e-tron as the parts required would have taken two hours to disassemble. Little more than ratchets ultimately exchanged hands between the two crews, with the arrival of the Audi race truck instead required to complete the necessary repairs.

In total, Ekström forfeited more than four hours 30 minutes, his hopes of Dakar glory having turned to dust in one fell swoop.

Yet all is far from lost, as the Dakar dream lives on for Carlos Sainz and co-driver Lucas Cruz. They continue to lead the way in the overall classification, having come out the other side of Audi’s toughest day with the fourth-fastest time on the stage.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 7

One look at the loose layer of rocks through the canyon passes told you all you needed to know about the stage’s potential pitfalls. Trepidation was the keyword here for Sainz, as although there was plenty of time to be gained by pushing in the rocky sections it carried an obvious risk of punctures. In the end, that was one Sébastien Loeb - Sainz’s new nearest challenger - deemed worthwhile and that played a part in him clawing back 10 minutes, with irksome navigation issues and a slow puncture for the Audi crew other significant contributing factors.

“Navigation was very, very tricky; it was very tricky to find the way,” said Sainz. “We suffered quite a lot, we had to go back in a couple of places to find the waypoints, then we had a slow puncture and we needed to stop. But Seb really did a really good job because opening the road at that speed and the navigation [required was a tough combination]. So they did well.”

Audi’s lead has come down to 19 minutes, but so too has the remaining distance. This was a case of one down, five to go for Sainz, who seemed assured enough in the bivouac. If there’s any positive to take from Ekström’s dramas, too, it’s that Sainz now has two rear gunners with the sole focus of assisting his bid for a fourth Dakar victory. With over 2,000km of racing to go, there’s still a long way to the finish in Yanbu. So stay tuned to see how this thrilling race will play out.

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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