Audi is looking to become the first car manufacturer to win the gruelling Dakar Rally using electric power – a new chapter for Audi motorsport is about to be written.

24 July, 2021

No. This is not the latest design concept from Audi, although you’d be forgiven for making that assumption. This wild, futuristic machine is the Audi RS Q e-tron, the vehicle with which the brand will take on arguably its greatest motorsport challenge yet – no small claim given the brand’s illustrious motorsport history.

In just just over five months, Audi Sport will head to the Dakar Rally, the most gruelling, uncompromising motorsport event on earth, taking on extremes of terrain, temperature and distance in a race through the deserts of Saudi Arabia. For two weeks, covering up to 800km each day, three Audi RS Q e-trons, driven by what amounts to motorsport royalty, will run flat out over unforgiving terrain, battling fierce human competition in an attempt not just to win the event, but to be the first manufacturer to do so using an electrified drivetrain.

The challenge is tremendous from just about every conceivable angle, but for Audi it is not just the most logical step in the brand’s electrification strategy, but perfectly in keeping with the brand’s history. Remember, once upon a time no one had heard of quattro, and the idea of driving a car through all four wheels had limited appeal. That of course was only until 1981, when the Audi quattro cars completely changed the face of world rallying for good. Now quattro is part of the motoring lexicon and the superior grip of all-wheel drive is commonly used in road cars. Likewise, Audi used the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s toughest track-based endurance race to showcase and test its automotive technology, dominating the race from 2000 to 2014 and becoming the first manufacturer to win with both diesel power and with a hybrid electric drivetrain.

More recently, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler team has been the most successful team in Formula E’s relatively short history, netting a total of 43 podium finishes, including 12 victories – as well as a drivers’ and teams’ championship along the way. Indeed, this involvement in Formula E from the very start of the formula has been the perfect test bed for many of the technologies that are now being employed in the monstrous Audi RSQ e-tron race cars that will take on the deserts in January next year. 

“Today, electromobility at the four rings is no longer a dream of the future, but the present,” says says Markus Duesmann, Chairman of the Board of Management at AUDI AG. 

“We want to continue demonstrating the brand’s slogan Vorsprung durch Technik in international top-level motorsport in the future and develop innovative technologies for our road cars.

“This is why we are taking the next step in electrified motorsport by facing the most extreme conditions. The many technical freedoms offered by the Dakar Rally provide a perfect test laboratory for us in this respect,” he says.

As a motorsport event, the Dakar off-road rally presents a set of unique challenges to teams, but these challenges are only made more complicated when you introduce new, electrified drivetrains for the very first time. 

“What we are trying to do has never been done before,” says Andreas Roos, responsible for the Dakar project at Audi Sport. 

“This is the ultimate challenge for an electric drivetrain.”

And, as if the challenges of racing with new technology wasn’t enough, the entire project has been fast tracked in record time, the RS Q e-tron being unveiled to the world less than a year after the initial concept idea was first announced.

“We had to begin the development while the regulations for alternatively-powered vehicles had not even been finalised yet. And all of the development took place during the Corona pandemic. You mustn’t underestimate that either,” says Roos.

It may sound like a line from Back to the Future, but where Audi’s going there are not only no roads, but no charging stations either – something of a hurdle when you plan on racing electric vehicles. So Audi has designed a system using a highly efficient TFSI engine straight out of DTM racing, that works as part of an energy converter that charges the high-voltage battery during driving. The battery, which weighs around 370kg and has a capacity of 50 kWh, powers motor-generator units (MGU) on the front and rear axles from the current Audi e-tron FE07 Formula E car with only minor modifications to suit the Dakar style of racing.

A third MGU is used as part of the energy converter and serves to recharge the high-voltage battery while driving and in addition, energy is also recuperated during braking. 

The Audi RS Q e-tron only needs one forward gear. The front and rear axles are not mechanically connected, as is also common in electric vehicles. The software developed by Audi takes over the torque distribution between the axles and creates a virtual and freely configurable centre differential, which saves both weight and space that would otherwise have been required by propshafts and a mechanical differential.

Measuring 4.5 metres long, 2.3 metres wide and standing 1.95 metres high, the 2000kg RS Q e-tron with its maximum system power output of 500 kW hits 100km/h from standstill in just 4.5 seconds even on loose gravel and has a top speed of 170km/h (as set out by the regulations*). 

The Dakar Rally entry is being run in conjunction with Q Motorsport, founded by Sven Quandt, himself a Paris–Dakar Rally winner and principal of the X-raid Team, which has celebrated six victories in the Dakar Rally and also won the FIA World Cup for cross-country rallies 11 times. 

“Audi has always chosen new and bold paths in racing, but I think this is one of the most complex cars that I have ever seen,” says team principal Sven Quandt. 

“The electric drivetrain means that a lot of different systems have to communicate with each other. Besides reliability, which is paramount in the Dakar Rally, that’s our biggest challenge in the coming months.” 

Quandt compares Audi’s Dakar project to the first moon landing: “Back then, the engineers didn’t really know what was coming. It’s similar with us. If we finish the first Dakar event, that’s already a success.” 

Already, Audi Sport has achieved incredible progress in a ridiculously short period of time, but everyone associated with the project recognises that this is just the beginning. The coming months will see an extensive test schedule get underway in which the drivers – Mattias Ekström, Carlos Sainz and Stéphane Peterhansel – in conjunction with Audi’s engineers and technicians will put the RS Q e-trons under extreme pressure to see that they will be up to task come January. It’s an extraordinary challenge, and one that has the potential of changing not only motorsport, but the very vehicles we drive in the future – but of course Audi has never been the sort of brand to shy away from a challenge.

*Final race regulations are yet to be finalised.