Highs and lows at Dakar 2023

A punishing Dakar by any standard, but cause for celebration at the finish.

Although a final podium eluded the Audi Sport team this year, the results in just its second Dakar speak for themselves.

16 January, 2023

In the opening days the RS Q e-trons were never far from the front of the field

After two brutal weeks of fierce competition in the Saudi Arabian desert, Audi Sport driver pair of Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist have finished the 2023 Dakar Rally in 14th outright. Their Audi RS Q e-tron was the only one of three to finish the 8,900km endurance, with 14-time Dakar winner Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz each being forced to retire following accidents and significant resultant damage to their vehicles.

The result was bitter sweet in many respects for Audi Sport given the tremendous turn of speed shown by all three Audis from the very start of the event, but such is the nature of motorsport and the Dakar Rally in particular, that there is no such thing as a guaranteed result. Fortunes change very quickly in an event like the Dakar, and the difference between a stage win and failing to finish the stage altogether can be a miscalculation in speed over a dune or not seeing a rock in the sand – both scenarios encountered by the Audi drivers in this year’s race.

In just the Audi Sport team’s second Dakar Rally, the area had been to finish with a podium result. That wasn’t to be at the end, although in the first half of the rally an RS Q e-tron was never far from the very front of the field. But despite the massive setbacks, accidents along the way and retirements, the results are overwhelmingly positive and mark a quantum leap of the impressive results of the team’s maiden Dakar just a year ago.

A job well done (L to R) Rolf Michl, Oliver Hoffmann, Emil Bergkvist, Mattias Ekström and Sven Quandt.

In 2022, Audi Sport finished Dakar on debut with four podium wins – an achievement made all the more significant by the fact that it was done with the new electric drive of the RS Q e-tron for the first time. This year, the team recorded 14 stage podiums on 15 event days, and Audi led the rally for three days.

“The pace of our innovative Audi RS Q e-tron was good right from the start and also showed at the end,” said an enthusiastic Oliver Hoffmann, Board Member for Technical Development at Audi at the end of the race.

“Unfortunately, we also had bad luck in the desert and many punctures. Despite the setbacks, the team celebrated a finish thanks to strong performances.”

The highs and lows of Dakar were not confined to the towering dunes, with Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist setting the fastest time in the Prologue to lead the rally at the start and then handing off the lead to three-time winner, Carlos Sainz and his co-driver Lucas Cruz for the following two days of competition. But from there the terrain took its toll, and over the course of just the first four days of competition the Audi Sport team suffered 14 punctures – and that was just the beginning.

The team was beset with punctures – 14 in just the first four days of competition

The only Audi left in 2023, Ekström was fast to the very last stage.

In the remaining five days of competition, Ekström was never out of the top four stage results 

The serious accident that sidelined 14-time Dakar winner Stéphane Peterhansel, could have been significantly worse, although he and co-driver Edouard Boulanger were both taken to hospital for observation and the latter was ultimately airlifted to Germany for treatment for a back injury.

“Three stage results in the top three showed what was possible,” said Peterhansel at the finish. “However, I have no memory of my accident, which dashed all hopes.” 

Carlos Sainz survived damage on the same dune to fight on after a monstrous effort by the Audi Sport support team, but despite racing back to the top three in the very next stage, a rollover the next day signalled the end of his campaign for 2023 as well.

That left Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist to carry the team’s hopes to the end with five days of the rally still to run. From well back in the field, they fought their way from 39th position at one stage to come home in the top four on six occasions in the remaining stages of the race. Indeed in the seemingly never ending dunes of the Empty Quarter, the pair achieved third and second during the two day period where teams receive no technical assistance. 

The vast Empty Quarter is like the surface of another planet.

In total, they were among the top three in the stage rankings six times during the 2023 Dakar Rally and even after slipping behind by almost seven hours due to running repairs they still managed to come home in 14th place overall in the end.

“It was a tough rally – we never gave up even after the high time losses,” said an tired, but Ekström. “When we didn’t have confidence in the roadbook on individual days, we took some speed out, otherwise we measured ourselves against the front runners.” 

This year’s Dakar showed that the speed of the RS Q e-tron is well and truly up to the task and the quality of the driving teams and the technical support is second to none. Of course no amount of planning and preparation can account for prevailing conditions, accidents or damage, but that is just the nature of motorsport.

Although this race has only just been run, the Audi Sport team will enjoy a well-earned celebration before getting straight back to preparations for the next attempt and coming back stronger still in 2024.

“We will now analyse all areas,” says Oliver Hoffmann. “A podium was our goal. It remains so, because we will definitely compete again in 2024.”

Watch the action from the final stage of Dakar 2023 here.

“A podium was our goal. It remains so, because we will definitely compete again in 2024”