The control centre
Like its advanced drivetrain, the cockpit of the Audi RS Q e-tron is absolutely state-of-the-art.
More like the cockpit of of fighter plane than a rally vehicle, the RS Q e-tron represents the next generation in off-road racing.
13 December, 2021
The basics are all there at a glance. Steering wheel – check. Accelerator peddle – check. Brake pedal – check. Handbrake lever – check. But there’s an awful lot of equipment inside the Audi RS Q e-tron that would look more at home in the cockpit of aeroplane than in a purpose built rally vehicle. This is the command centre of the Audi Sport assault on the world’s toughest off-road rally next month – the famed Dakar Rally, which will see competitors tackle more than 7000 kilometres of the harshest terrain the Saudi Arabian desert can throw at them.
Just as the RS Q e-tron’s electrified drivetrain represents a quantum leap forward in terms of rally drivetrains, so too the controls and readouts in the cabin are at the very cutting edge of technology. They will require all of the expertise of both the drivers and their co-drivers to get the most from the vehicles come race time.
The ‘division of labour’ inside a modern rally vehicle is different to the traditional idea of the driver concentrating on actually driving the vehicle, while the intrepid co-driver, or navigator, calls instructions from their book of pace notes.
The drivers are still the ones behind the wheel, and while the controls have changed somewhat – no changing gears in an electric drive for example – their task is still to control the vehicle and get it from A to B as quickly as possible.
The driver is still fundamentally tasked with getting the vehicle from A to B as quickly as possible
The aluminium handbrake lever is a familiar sight amongst the less familiar controls – its brake-by-wire system combines the hydraulic brake with a recuperation system
The aluminium handbrake lever is a familiar sight amongst the less familiar screens and other controls. Its brake-by-wire system combines the hydraulic brake with a recuperation system – as does the foot brake – which means that pulling on the handbrake is still used to induce a slide to set up for corners, but also recovers energy when applied.
The steering wheel is adorned with buttons – eight in total – that control everything from the more traditional functions like the horn and windscreen wipers, to data entries in the software system. Behind the steering wheel, a display sits directly in the driver’s lower field of vision providing information on tyre pressures, drive direction and current speed. It also contains important warnings so that the driver can react immediately in the event of an imminent system shutdown or disconnection of the high-voltage battery, for example. Two small displays mounted above and toward the windscreen show compass direction and current speed.
A central display between the driver and co-driver contains information on tire pressures, selected brake balance, the brake-by-wire system and many other functions. The information is highlighted in green when a function or system is working properly, or in red when an error occurs. A switch panel with touch screen is located underneath and Audi has stored various functions on the 24 freely assignable areas including preselected maximum speeds or the air conditioning actuation.
The driver controls these functions, which requires a steady hand at speeds of up to 170 km/h for hours on end, while the co-pilot assumes a high level of responsibility in addition to his original main task, which is to navigate. “I now spend only half my energy on navigation, the other half on operating the car. But I love this new challenge,” says Edouard Boulanger, Stéphane Peterhansel’s co-driver.
The route of the upcoming stage is no longer issued the evening before as in the past, but rather the teams only receive this route information 15 minutes before the start of the stage each morning. The short-notice information on the route and a switch to a digital road book format pose major challenges. To orient themselves in the terrain and at the same time keep to the prescribed route, the three co-drivers Emil Bergkvist, Edouard Boulanger and Lucas Cruz look at two tablet screens that replace the previous paper road books. They are operated by two remote controls connected by cables. On the screen on the left, the road book shows the way through the terrain. If this tablet should fail, crews are allowed to open and use the sealed paper road book supplied. The tablet on the right contains the GPS navigation and validates the digital waypoints that each participant must drive to.
Teams only receive route information 15 minutes before the start of the stage each morning
The cockpit of each vehicle also carries an Iritrack system mounted in the centre console which is used for first aid in emergencies
When the car reaches the radius of a waypoint, the driver also sees the arrows in the right-hand repeater below the windshield, indicating the direction to the waypoint.
But far from trueing modern rally navigation into a computer driven exercise, it remains very much a matter of skill, the organisers only providing compass directions, distances, pictograms, special aspects and hazard warnings in the digital road book.
The cockpit of each vehicle also carries an Iritrack system mounted in the centre console which is used for first aid in emergencies. It records speed and current vehicle position and can detect possible accidents, so that in the event of an emergency, the co-driver can inform the organiser directly whether the passengers are uninjured, whether they require medical assistance or whether the rescue team should help another participant who has had an accident.
It’s an impressive set-up that shows just how far the modern race vehicles have become.
But as high tech as the various vehicle systems inside and driving the vehicles, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the skill, tenacity and quick decision making of the drivers and co-drivers. It is ultimately the combination of human skill, reliable technology and team work that wins the Dakar. Oh, and being the fastest.
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