No stranger to motorsport competition at the very highest levels, Mattias Ekström particularly relishes the harsh challenge that is the Dakar Rally, where Audi Sport is again putting its hybrid electric drive to the toughest test in January.
5 December, 2023
It takes a moment for the dust to settle. With a loud rumble, the Audi RS Q e-tron has come to a halt on the stony sandy gravel. When the doors open, an exhausted but clearly satisfied Mattias Ekström steps out of his Dakar race car.
“It is funny,” he says. “I was on a hiatus since January, drove a lot of other cars. But with the Audi RS Q e-tron I instantly feel at home, it seems as if I have been in it all year long.”
Come January next, Audi will compete in the Dakar Rally for the third time. Driver Mattias Ekström and the entire Audi Sport Team are already well advanced in their intensive preparations for the world’s toughest endurance rally in the Saudi Arabian desert, but the Dakar is merciless and even the best prepared have no guarantee of success.
The last Dakar Rally was tough for Ekström and the whole Audi Team. “We went there with high expectations, but we didn’t get the results we wanted,” he admits. While the electric drive concept of the Audi RS Q e-tron worked flawlessly, tyre failures and accident-related retirements clearly set back the Audi driver teams and put an overall victory out of reach.
For the rally in January 2024, all three drivers – Ekström, Peterhansel and Sainz – are back on the grid after a year spent testing and also competing to sort out past issues and try to get an edge for the event next year.
“You can’t win, you can’t even get to the finish line, by sheer luck. You win by skill, experience and attitude. You need the right mindset,” says Ekström, whose long and distinguished motorsport record makes him better qualified than most to understand the challenge.
Mattias Ekström was an Audi factory driver from 1999 to 2017. A versatile racing driver who is ready for any challenge, he is a former World Rallycross champion, two-time DTM champion and the winner of four Race of Champions titles. In 2021, Ekström joined one of Audi Sport’s trio of driver teams competing in the Dakar Rally. “Still, being a part of the Dakar project is the biggest challenge of my career. I think anyone would like to win there. But once you know all the hard work you need to put in to get there, I am sure many would give up before they even tried.”
He is partnered once again with fellow Swede Emil Bergkvist, who won the Junior World Rally Championships in 2018 before taking the co-driver’s seat in 2021 and teaming up with his racing idol, Mattias Ekström.
This year – 2023 – the entire team has the potential to drive at the very front, making it all the more annoying that tyre failures and other problems set Audi back in January. “We need to find out why we got punctures in places we didn’t expect. What do we have to change about the way we are driving, about the set-up of the car and, most importantly, is there a tyre that can handle it better?” says Ekström.
To find explanations and solutions, the Audi Sport Team countless hours and kilometres testing, including several days in Saudi Arabia. Using two different types of tyres from BF Goodrich, the official tyre supplier of the Dakar Rally, the team compares the performance and attempts to recreate the conditions that caused the damage back in January – to develop countermeasures. Also on the agenda are improved shock absorbers, as the chassis must behave reliably but also consistently and efficiently on the rough surfaces. Measurement sensors in the chassis for loads and accelerations support the team in their work.
The Audi RS Q e-tron completed the test without complaint. This reliable run over a distance of 2568 kilometres not only confirms the maturity of the innovative vehicle but offers addition technical insights for the engineers and drivers alike.
After the return from testing in Saudi Arabia, a comprehensive analysis of all recorded data is scheduled. The Dakar Rally, Ekström is certain, doesn’t forgive any negligence. “There is always something to learn. Success in motorsports will always have different ingredients. And the majority is skill, experience and knowledge.” Nothing is certain come the next Dakar Rally in 2024, but Ekström and the rest of the Audi Sport team are acutely aware that there is no such thing as to much preparation.
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