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Stage 11 sees Sainz on the cusp of historic Dakar Rally win

El Matador carries a lead of an hour and a half into the final day as Audi chases its first Dakar win

Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz stand on the brink of Audi history. One stage, 174km in length, is all that separates them and the Audi RS Q e-tron from overall victory on the Dakar Rally.

If the final days of the rally seemed like a good time to start winding things down, Dakar organiser – the ASO – had other ideas. It saved what’s been widely acknowledged as this year’s fiercest test [itals]almost[itals] for last with a penultimate stage that took the field from AlUla to Yanbu on the Red Sea coast, complete with the harshest and sharpest stone tracks the two-week route has thrown up. It was a daunting prospect for just about everyone involved, never mind the two crews still vying for overall honours.

But the Audis weathered the storm wonderfully. Instead, it was Sainz’s last remaining rival, nine-time WRC champ Sébastien Loeb, whose challenge came undone. Sainz read the rocks, crawled through the canyons, and navigated the narrow passes to come out the other side of a gruelling 420km test unscathed, as he took the biggest step yet towards fulfilling Audi’s dreams of a Dakar win.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 11

Sainz would have been forgiven for some caution at the start of Thursday. Three punctures a day earlier put a significant dent in his overall lead and required stablemate Mattias Ekström to lend his assistance. Honourably forfeiting three tyres for the leading car went a long way to preserving Sainz’s lead for a fifth-straight day, though it was still cut from 20 minutes to a far-from-comfortable 13 minutes by Loeb.

Apprehension ratcheted up too, as the AlUla to Yanbu stage was one teams knew could bite hard. Set in the same region as last year’s second stage, it was here that all three RS Q e-trons suffered punishing and race-altering punctures 12 months ago. But Audi arrived having done its homework; last year’s nightmare only enhanced its preparations.

And If Sainz was supposed to be feeling the heat from Loeb breathing down his neck, he showed no signs it was affecting him. El Matador wasn’t just quick out of the blocks, he was fastest of all for 333km of the 420km, despite having come across Loeb’s Prodrive Hunter T1+ far earlier. That encounter happened 132km in as Loeb, stranded with a broken right-front upright after hitting a loose rock, magnanimously ushered Sainz and Cruz to back off over the punishing boulder field, signalling the fight was done. Rivals they might be, but sometimes even the competitive urge gives way to the camaraderie of the Dakar. That’s the magical Dakar Spirit.

The relief was obvious for Sainz. Safe in the knowledge his lead was under no threat, he exercised caution thereafter. “It was with good reason we looked at this stage with big respect because it was obviously very stoney, so it was very easy again to get punctures. I was making a lot of slaloms just to get through [those narrow passes],” he said.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 11

Sainz did have one slow puncture near the end of the stage but still ended up third fastest, scoring his fourth stage podium of the rally. Far more importantly, though, he now has a lead of one hour and 27 minutes over Guillaume De Mévius’s Toyota Hilux with one stage to go. You can never get too comfortable on an event as unpredictable as the Dakar, but that’s about as favourable a final day lead as you’ll ever see. “If it is one hour, I don't need to rush [tomorrow],” was Sainz’s succinct summary.

Despite a puncture of their own, after striking the very rock that took Loeb out of contention, Ekström and co-driver Emil Bergkvist came through to an impressive fourth on stage. The Swede’s explanation of that incident told you all you needed to know about the inherent dangers stage 11 presented. “We came to this area where we were crawling, and then over one rise, I would say at 5km/h maximum, I hit a stone - bang! - on the front right,” said Ekström.

Stéphane Peterhansel showed good pace too but, long out of contention at this point, Mr Dakar stuck to his task of playing back-up to Sainz as he parked up in the desert for 15 minutes to wait for the sister car in the event of any misfortune further into the stage. Despite that, he still moved up one position to 12th in the overall classification.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 11

After a fortnight of competition across a gruelling, at times inhospitable landscape, the Yanbu loop stage is all that’s left in the way of a first Dakar Rally victory for Audi. Still, it’s not done yet. And it’s not going to be easy.

“It has been so tense a rally that to start tomorrow with one and a half hours [in hand] is really good for us. But, at the same time, tomorrow is another day.” Carlos Sainz said. There’s 170km still to go and we need to keep the same approach,” he added. “I've been in the business long enough to know that we need to keep calm.”

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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