The story behind Audi's 671bhp attempt at the 2022 Dakar Rally | Top Gear
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The story behind Audi's 671bhp attempt at the 2022 Dakar Rally

The RS Q e-tron is the motorsport equivalent of a moon shot. TG.com went behind the scenes to see how it fared

Audi RS Q e-tron Dakar Top Gear
  • Audi RS Q e-tron Dakar Top Gear

    From zero to Dakar in less than 18 months is no mean feat. Borderline madness, some might say, given the rally’s ferocious reputation. Audi motorsport’s primary aim with the remarkable RS Q e-tron was simply to finish. As the dust settled – and that takes some time on this event – four stage wins, 14 podium positions and a ninth place overall for Mattias Ekström (with co-driver Emil Bergkvist) was proof of concept – the concept being that the automotive equivalent of a moon shot could stay the course during the world’s toughest motorsport event. TG.com was there…

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  • Carlos Sainz

    Audi’s ambition for the Dakar is evident in its stellar driver line-up. Carlos Sainz Sr – you might have heard of Sainz Junior, also pretty rapid – is one of the all-time rallying greats, with no fewer than 16 entries in the Dakar, and four overall victories, not to mention two world rally championship titles. "You need to try to go faster than the others, use your eyes to read the road properly. You’re reaching 170 km/h and on the limit," he tells TG.com with as much patience as he can muster. "I’m looking forward to the stages that are a bit more technical. You can make more difference as a driver in those circumstances. Experience is important, but at the end of the day we all drive with our eyes and according to what you can see. We have improved the set-up of the car more and more over the course of the rally."

  • Audi at Dakar

    The Audi RSQ e-tron is one of the most ambitious competition cars ever created, and certainly the most technically complicated vehicle ever to tackle the Dakar. Audi initiated a paradigm shift in world rallying more than 40 years ago with the original Quattro, and enjoyed a phenomenal Noughties hot streak at Le Mans using both diesel and hybrid powertrains (13 wins out of 18 entries). The RS Q e-tron was co-developed with cross country rally specialist Q Motorsport, whose team principal is the highly experienced rally raid driver and team manager Sven Quandt (coincidentally a scion of the family that has a majority shareholding in BMW – Q Motorsport has won the Dakar six times). "When I was approached by Audi about 18 months ago, it was super interesting to me because I thought we needed to go a different way for the future of motorsport," he tells TG.com. "The software is probably the most complicated I’ve ever seen. In fact, I think this is one of the most complex cars I’ve ever seen. The electric drivetrain means that a lot of different systems have to communicate with each other."

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  • Audi at Dakar

    The RSQ e-tron cleverly repurposes elements from elsewhere in the Audi motorsport portfolio: an unusual but appropriate example of recycling. So the electric motors are the same as those used in the company’s most recent Formula E car, with one mounted on each axle. "We have already achieved an efficiency of over 97 per cent in Formula E, there is not much more room for improvement," says Stefan Dreyer, head of development at Audi Motorsport. Of course, no electric car on the planet can cover the distances the Dakar demands – more than 8000km across 12 stages in two weeks – so the RS Q also deploys the 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder last seen in the RS5 DTM racer. This is basically an energy converter that charges the 50 kWh battery on the move, via a third e-motor (or MGU) which helps turn kinetic energy into electrical energy. There’s also so much brake recuperation that the drivers hardly need to bother with the regular brakes. The combustion engine spins at between 4,500 and 6,000rpm – the most efficient operating window, and only comes on song to recharge the battery when the software decides it’s necessary. The fuel tank holds 295 litres. It certainly sounds odd when you see it in action, primarily because it barely makes any noise at all as it approaches, only for the ICE to materialise – and it’s very vocal – as the car passes by…

    The whole set-up is good for 671bhp, says Audi, although the Dakar regulations and the ‘balance of performance’ requirement mean it’s producing rather less in the heat of battle (the FIA stipulates around 400bhp tops). "We went to the lengths we could. Not just the limits of technology – drivetrain concept, chassis concept, aerodynamics – but also what such a car could look like. So the design department was very involved from the start. I think the car looks awesome, it looks beautiful and brutal," Dreyer adds.

  • Audi at Dakar

    The RS Q has a single-speed transmission, and the front and rear axles are not mechanically connected. Software manages the torque distribution and creates what Audi descrives as a ‘virtual and freely configurable centre differential’. That’s also useful for saving weight and space – although Stefan Dreyer concedes that the car is still overweight (at 2,000kg without the drivers). Reducing that figure is one of the big targets as the project continues to evolve. The spaceframe is made from an aerospace-grade lightweight steel alloy that’s heat resistant, while the wild looking body is made of carbon fibre composite, with Kevlar reinforcement and a material called Zylon in some of the most vulnerable areas. Audi has used single shock absorbers on a double wishbone configuration rather than the double dampers favoured by some of its key rivals, in an effort to reduce weight.

  • Audi at Dakar

    Stéphane Peterhansel has won the Dakar a record 14 times, and brought unrivalled experience to Audi’s 2022 campaign. But he was an early victim of the cruel misfortune that this most quixotic of motorsport events can wreak: he hit a stone during the second stage that destroyed a wheel rim and damaged the suspension. Although they repaired it, the time lost exceeded the maximum stage time and dumped the Frenchman and co-driver Edouard Boulanger to the back of the field. That was a deficit not even this hardened desert warrior could make up. At which point, he effectively became an additional support vehicle for his team-mates, a position he was sanguine about fulfilling.

    "During my career, I’ve had a lot of help from team-mates," he says. "So it’s a pleasure to give something back, to help the crew, and to try to win a stage. My main target is to help my team mates, for sure. We are all in the same boat, we’re trying to do our best for the team. What did I say to Carlos? [laughs] 'Thank you for the nice holiday in the sun, I need a little sun cream so I can stay here for a few hours…'’’

    Adds Sven Quandt: "You saw what happened with Stéphane early in the rally. I thought we could land this car on the moon, the suspension is so strong, and when I saw the pieces and how they were bent… I’d never seen anything like it before. The suspension is still super strong so I think this accident was just abnormal. And that can happen. That’s Dakar."

  • Audi RS Q e-tron at the 2022 Dakar Rally

    Says Stéphane Peterhansel: "The internal combustion engines look like the past. For now I don’t miss the thermic engine. As a driver, I’m very satisfied with how the Audi goes. You always have power, torque and a good response. And you can really focus on your line because your hands are always on the wheel. For me it’s more than just interesting technology, it’s also really fun to drive. Things I don’t like? The noise from the energy generator is a little too high. And we can feel the inertia in some of the corners, the weight of the car. We can be much faster if we lose some weight."

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  • Audi at Dakar

    What’s underneath is obviously crucial, given the punishment the underside endures. Damage is fended off by a 54mm-thick triple protective layer: there’s a primary aluminium plate, a second layer of energy-absorbing foam, and finally a carbon fibre one that is effectively the last barricade and also protects the battery. Audi’s mechanics worked on this one during service intervals, something Sven Quandt was initially unsure about. "I really doubted that we would be able to remove the protective layer and then get it back into place without a lot of effort. But the guys were able to put it back no problem. The plate didn’t move at all, it slid back like it was being fitted for the first time.

    "There is something very special with this car, and I have developed many cars in my life for Dakar. This is the only car I can tell you that after 8500km of testing we haven’t had a crack in any area of the chassis. Whoever I know who has won the Dakar will have had to weld something somewhere on the chassis at some point in the rally. This car is extremely stiff and safe. Some of this was needed because of the battery."

    Fast fact: the RS Q e-tron uses 2.5 miles of wiring.

  • Audi at the 2022 Dakar Rally

    "This is the most complicated project I’ve ever been involved with," said Stefan Dreyer. "There is more than one engine, and it was all developed during a pandemic. We have used such a different approach. It was very, very challenging. There were moments during which I thought, 'this might not work'. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. But in racing either you are ready or you’re not. They don’t postpone the start just because you’re not ready. But with Sven’s experience, the experience of the drivers and our experience as a team we managed to bring it together. And as you can see, our car was not so bad…"

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  • Audi at Dakar

    Sven Quandt: "There was some cheating in the past, where everyone saw the roadbook in advance. So the organisers developed an electronic roadbook which you only see on the morning of the stage. The driver’s display only features the most important information because we don’t want to overload him. The co-driver has a much bigger display with much more information, showing the state of the battery charge, where we are, the challengers’ position and so on.

    "The most important button is probably the speed limiter, and the car has a kind of cruise control to fix the speed in the areas in which you can be penalised for going too fast. Speeding in cross country rallying is heavily penalised, not just with money and fines – which we could probably live with, to be honest – but by time penalties. 30, 50, 90, 110km/h: there are various speeds which the co-driver can see marked in the road book and which the driver activates. The reversing camera is extremely important, especially in the dunes."

  • Audi at Dakar

    Carlos Sainz: "I’m happy with it. Audi has done a great job of getting the car done on time. I see the future with a lot of excitement because we have all the tools to make the car quicker and to come back to win. The noise is strange to begin with but you get used to it.

    "Age is on the right foot. I’m happy that Audi thinks I can be part of this project and I’m happy to help them. I think I’m proving I’m still fast enough."

  • Audi at Dakar

    Matthias Ekström: "Where do we find the speed? It depends on the conditions. When there are lots of aggressive dunes, I’m too slow. If you go over the top too fast you can roll over so easily. Your Dakar is over. You can kill it on one dune and there are thousands of them. To read the dunes and to be bringing the right speed at those points at the top is what I’m struggling with a bit. You know what’s there… either steep downhill or flat. It’s simple, really. [smiles]

    "On the normal gravel style roads, then we’re fine. It’s about navigation at those points, if you drive flat out it’s super easy to make navigation mistakes. It’s easy to get lost at a junction, there are so many notes for every metre. You can’t learn and read something that’s not readable. It’s all estimations."

  • Audi at Dakar

    Matthias Ekström: "The locals know to stand still. If you keep running someone will get hit. Stand still on top of a dune and you’ll be fine. Of course we are mindful of people’s safety, but things can happen. You have to drive with that in mind."

  • Mattias Ekstrom Dakar Top Gear

    Matthias Ekström is wittier than your average racing driver, and possibly even slightly laid-back. But we have to take issue with his taste in music. "We have Spotify in the car and lots of playlists. I listen to Aviici and Ed Sheeran. We’ll listen to music on the road sections, but not on the stages. We love it. This rally is about being in the correct mental state. If you’re a bit high on energy, you’re dangerous to your car, your co-driver and yourself. If you’re low, you’ll be too slow. So it’s about balancing your mood to be at the healthy energy level. If you play the same song day after day, you can regulate your mood. You can get into a routine. Listen to the wrong sort of music and you’ll crash at the first corner.

    He laughs. "Carlos and Stéphane are probably listening to Abba."

  • Mattias Ekstrom Audi Dakar 2022

    Mattias Ekstrom: "The car is super cool in many ways. The T1 class is like the modern hardcore race car. If you were with me on a stage you wouldn’t be able to grasp the speed we can carry, it’s nuts."

  • Audi RS Q e-tron Dakar Top Gear

    Stéphane Peterhansel on navigating: "We know that the roadbook is sometimes not perfect. To make a perfect roadbook is very complicated. We’re often in open desert and a corner or step that is marked in the book can be easily missed. In the desert you need to take the information and be a little bit safe. There is always a mistake somewhere and you need to accept that."

  • Stephane Peterhansel Audi RS Q e-tron Dakar Top Gear

    Stéphane Peterhansel on the uniqueness of the event: "The Dakar is a different sort of race, but there is a really good spirit. The drivers and riders are fighting against the chronometer, against time, more than they are competing against each other. In a circuit race, you want to be first to the first corner. There is a little bit of competition, but the spirit in cross-country rallying and the Dakar is different. There is a good atmosphere."

  • Audi RS Q e-tron Dakar Top Gear

    Stefan Dreyer on the challenges the Audi team faced this year: "If you’d asked me beforehand where the problems might occur, I would never, ever have said it would be with the suspension. But it’s similar to our experiences at Le Mans: you can prepare as thoroughly as possible, go through everything and arrive at the track. Then the track shows you differently. Now we’ll optimise the components we have. The focus is on reducing weight, improving durability, and doing everything it takes to make this concept a winning car in Dakar."

  • Audi at the 2022 Dakar Rally

    Sven Quandt on the result: "We had some idea of where we’d be, but we didn’t think a brand new car would be so immediately competitive. We knew that winning in the first year was close to impossible, but when Carlos won a stage [from Al Artawiya to Al Qaisumah] we showed that the car was really there. Now we have to get the reliability. You can have the best driver and best drivetrain, but you won’t win without the reliability.

    "We took a Le Mans car to the desert. I have to say I take my hat off: there were a lot of things I was concerned about. To work with such a big team of Audi engineers was a challenge and when you come from circuit racing there are a lot of things you do which are completely different. On the engine side, everyone was super afraid to bring this DTM engine to the desert. Now they’re less concerned, we’ve become good friends with the engine guys, ‘the dust is not so bad’, and we’re already discussing things for next year."

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