Dacia’s anti-Audi approach to Dakar

Audi's electric motivation prevailed in 2024 but Dacia is championing internal combustion and sustainable fuel

Cristina Gutiérrez, Sébastien Loeb

Sébastien Loeb could only look on in envy as Audi’s three musketeers banded together to shepherd Carlos Sainz home to victory.

On the penultimate stage, he was stopped at the side of the road, his Prodrive Hunter suffering punctures aplenty once more. Sainz drove past, Loeb offering a brief raise of the hand to say ‘I’m OK’ and simultaneously ‘well done, chap, victory is yours’.

Audi had once been the team that couldn’t get cars to the finish. Nasser Al-Attiyah jibed that none of them would make it past stage three – instead, Al-Attiyah simply gave up and stormed out of the bivouac, fed up of issues befalling his Hunter.

A combination of Sven Quandt’s Q Motorsport and Ingolstadt had done it: bring a battery-powered vehicle to the Dakar finish line in first place.

They’d done it the hard way: three electric motors, two powering the axles and one connected to a 2.0-liter turbodiesel engine as a power source. They had to almost redesign the thing from top to bottom after year one. But they did it.

It was a convoluted way to go about it. But what do you do when someone comes in with a new concept and wins – copy it?

Not this time. Loeb and his team are going even further in the opposite direction. Dacia, making its first high-profile venture into motorsport as a factory effort, has set out its stall: it is the anti-Audi.

The word “essential” was bandied around a lot at the launch. This is, at its core, the fundamental Dacia value. Its setting for its big unveil was spartan: a vast room with lots of empty space, the drivers and team members perched on little wooden stools. The biggest expense was a large LCD screen in the background.

When Dacia was acquired by Renault and began its global expansion, its value proposition was clear: your car will have black plastic bumpers, low-grade interior trim and wind-up windows – but you won’t care because it’s so cheap and reliable.

This Dacia is not cheap. But the reliability factor was stressed hard.

“A quick car is good. A reliable quick car is what we need to win,” said Philip Dunabin, Dacia’s technical director and once part of Ford’s rallying efforts in the 2000s.

That will be of great relief to Loeb: design flaws in the Hunter were, in the end, what stopped him from winning Dakar. The suspension was too fragile and tires too susceptible to punctures, due to the design of the exhaust system making the rears too warm.

BRX - Dakar Rally 2024

Exhaust system on BRX Hunter led to tire problems

“This is not a rebranded BRX Hunter,” Dunabin reinforced. He pointed out that every system on the car was either brand new or “significantly” upgraded.

Front and rear axles have been strengthened; the gearbox has a new casing, the braking system is all-new and how key components are laid out has been reconfigured to shift the weight balance forwards. And it’s done away with a starter motor: the onboard gear-driven generator will do this instead.

Loeb had gotten his wish – the large, sweeping convex windscreen opens up the view of the dunes ahead, an optimization that had been top of his wish list. Cristina Gutiérrez had lost more than a few nuts and bolts while changing punctures in past seasons – so they’ve magnetized the door panels to hold them in place mid tire-swap.

Then there’s the essentialism: no fairing in front of the spare tires that needs to be mounted and unmounted, just a strap to hold it in place. On paper, its engine solution is also simplistic: it’s a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 that’s been kicking around the Renault-Nissan Alliance for years now.

Sandrider - Exterior - Dacia (Embargoed 30.01.24 09h45am UK) (1)

Dacia Sandblaster is true to its "essentialism" philosophy

But this is where it gets a bit more complex. And perhaps where outright performance from the get-go becomes a question mark.

“Technically, we’re using the same engine, whether it’s for a conventional fuel or a synthetic fuel,” Dunabin confirmed.

“There’s obviously a significant amount of work to do to adapt the mapping of the engine to a synthetic fuel and also quite a long phase of development with our partner Aramco to match the synthetic fuel to the engine performance that we need.

“Technically, from the engine side, we have what we need. On the Aramco side, they have research to do and we’ll be matching the two together to get the same level of performance that we could have achieved from a conventional fuel.”

Denis Le Vot, Dacia CEO, quickly jumped in to point out that they were “defending accessible low-carbon mobility.” What that means in practice is Dacia refuses to go down the path trail-blazed by Audi: no electric. It’s complicated and expensive.

You just have to look at the road cars in showrooms to understand: an Audi Q8 e-tron (which now comes in a Dakar edition flavor) starts at £70,000 ($76,000 in the US market), while a Dacia Duster, without an electric motor in sight, can be had brand new for as little as £17,300 ($22,000).

Dacia’s effort is by no means low-tech. But it’s clear that in its efforts to win the Dakar, it’s going to spurn what the incumbent victors have done, not copy them.

But there’s a risk that being the anti-Audi will have downsides. There’s little doubt the Audis were fast, plus Sainz’s car had sufficient reliability to make the finish without encountering a major drama at any point.


Audi's trio of RS Q e-trons worked together

What had unfolded a few weeks earlier was posed to Loeb. He had no backup; optics-wise, Al-Attiyah had simply abandoned his Prodrive stablemate, even though as a separately registered team, he had no obligation to work with and help the BRX side of the bivouac.

Audi had strength in cohesion. Prodrive did not. But Loeb was diplomatic when asked if having a team-mate stick around to the very end would have helped him win.

“Difficult to say,” responded Loeb.

He added, talking about the suspension and exhaust problems: “We were suffering with our weak point that we know since a few years.”

“For sure it would be more safe to have a car behind just for the help as the Audis did, but we were not in this condition. I cannot say I would have won for sure; I think Audi was really strong and it was really difficult for us to beat them. No regrets.”

Loeb has a team-mate he knows he can rely on in Gutiérrez. They were paired together for two years in Extreme E, winning the 2022 title.

Extreme E 2022: Saudi Arabia

Loeb and Gutiérrez were team-mates in Lewis Hamilton's Extreme E team

And though Gutiérrez is a newcomer to the T1+ category, Guillaume de Mevius’ performance this year highlighted what’s possible for a top-level rookie: he finished second overall in a customer Toyota, having won the T3 class a year earlier. Gutiérrez won that same class earlier this month.

Al-Attiyah meanwhile was missing from Dacia’s big reveal. Not by choice, it should be noted; he’s in Qatar preparing for the Middle East Rally Championship season opener this week.

A post-Dakar split with Mathieu Baumel means Giovanni Bernacchini returns to the navigator’s seat in rallies and Stéphane Peterhansel’s former co-pilot Edouard Boulanger will join him at Dacia.

But the optics, even if a coincidence, felt fitting given what had happened a few weeks earlier. That lingering question remains: if push comes to shove and Loeb ends up the lone chance of a Dacia win, would Al-Attiyah fall into line and play the supporting role?

Dacia appears to be the anti-Audi; whether that’s for better or worse will take another year to discover.