Lessons of motorsport

Dakar-winner Carlos Sainz on electric drive in motorsport, Dakar and the future of the sport.

Ahead of scoring Audi Sport’s historic first win in the Dakar Rally, Carlos Sainz drove the Q8 e-tron edition Dakar and shared some insights both on the vehicle and helping develop a race-winning drive system for the ages.

23 January, 2024

A World Rally Champion in the early 1990s, Sainz continues to compete and win at the very highest levels of world motorsport

Carlos Sainz is one of the most successful and celebrated racing drivers in the modern era. A two-time World Rally Champion with titles in 1990 and 1992, he is unfamiliar with the very concept of slowing down, having just won his fourth Dakar and Audi’s first just days ago at the age of 61.

This year, before heading to Saudi Arabia for what would be an historic win for Audi Sport at Dakar, Sainz spent some time in another Audi which has drawn inspiration from the Dakar and the brand’s tireless work to not only win the race but do so against convention, using a vehicle with a hybrid-electric drive for the very first time.

He was joined by Fermín Soneira Santos, not as famous an automotive name, but as head of the A- to C-segment electric model series at Audi, someone who is as passionate about the brand and the ongoing development of its electric offerings.

The vehicle, the Audi Q8 e-tron edition Dakar uses the Q8 55 e-tron as its base, but adds specialised equipment and capabilities to make it a more versatile proposition for those wanting the push the envelope in terms of how and where they use the vehicle.

Sainz (left) and Santos put the Q8 e-tron edition Dakar through its paces.

For Sainz, the very idea of an electric vehicle competing at the highest level in a race like the Dakar was almost unthinkable in recent memory.

“A few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed an electric drive could compete in rallying,” says the veteran race driver on how the RS Q e-tron has changed his outlook.

“I’m impressed by the overall advantages of electric drive systems, such as the ability to use the right propulsion in every driving situation without having to change gears. Of course, the sustainability of the electric drive system in off-road use also convinced me. It’s a great experience to be part of this project and to help advance the technology.”

“All the experience we gained in the Dakar was crucial in developing the Q8 e-tron edition Dakar,” he says.

Taking the lessons learned in the cauldron of motorsport and applying them successfully to road vehicles has always been an important part of how the Audi brand has developed vehicles since its earliest days.

“Our collaboration with Audi Sport is integral to developing production cars, drawing on the expertise gained,” says Fermín Soneira Santos.

“When discussing the off-road capabilities of an electric car, we are talking about the torque, the specially adapted chassis, and the drive system,” he says. “In the Q8 e-tron edition Dakar, our customers will be able to experience what an electric drive system can achieve in off-road conditions.”

'All the experience we gained in the Dakar was crucial in developing the Q8 e-tron edition Dakar'

'Success in motorsport has always been important for Audi and will continue to be so'

While the Q8 55 e-tron forms the basis of the special edition Dakar, the inspiration of course comes from the Audi RS Q e-tron developed by Audi Sport especially to tackle the rigours of Dakar.

“First of all, I had never seen a drive system like this used at a rally,” says Sainz. “This groundbreaking experience has been incredibly exciting. Its [the RSQ e-tron's] electric drive concept instills reliability, a responsive driving feel, and, most importantly, confidence — vital attributes for rally drivers.”

Santos has a slightly different take on the relationship between the two vehicles.

“When it comes to the RS Q e-tron, we’re talking about a car designed for extreme use, driven by motorsport professionals,” he says. “Success in motorsport has always been important for Audi and will continue to be so and the RS Q e-tron is the best platform to represent both our history and the future of the brand.”

“The Q8 e-tron edition Dakar, on the other hand, is a road-legal special edition, typically not driven by motorsport professionals. However, both share a spirit of adventure and a desire to explore and push limits. The electric drive systems of both models make them ideally suited for off-road driving.”

Of course when it comes of off-road driving, the vehicle is just one, albeit very important, part of the equation, with the other being the driver’s own ability to negotiate the terrain.

“It’s important to judge the surface correctly. Familiarity with your vehicle and its available off-road features, as well as an understanding of your personal abilities and limits is key,” says Sainz.

When it comes to racing in the Dakar, watching footage of the most recent race, you could be forgiven for thinking that Sainz and the RS Q e-tron had no limits. The result this year represents yet another game changer for the brand, much like quattro in the 1980s and different drive concepts during the brand’s hugely successful Le Mans campaign in the early 2000s.

Will the RS Q e-tron’s success in the desert do the same for off-road endurance racing?

“We can already compete with the combustion engines. I am hopeful that the new Dakar regulations will enhance our competitiveness and provide more opportunities of achieving an overall victory,” says Sainz.

“Just four years ago, most experts – including myself – doubted the viability of electric drive systems in endurance rallies. Our success with the RS Q e-tron shows that a manufacturer who focuses on sustainable drive technologies can also be successful in motorsport.

'Our success with the RS Q e-tron shows that a manufacturer who focuses on sustainable drive technologies can also be successful in motorsport'