Team Audi Sport’s Mattias Ekström says the closeness of the Dakar Rally field following the Sea Camp prologue proves that the FIA’s latest regulation tweak has made the competition ‘pretty fair’.
Ekström, alongside navigator Emil Bergkvist, topped the eight-mile test which sets the running order for Sunday’s first proper stage of the 45th edition by just one second from Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sébastien Loeb.
Indeed, the entire top 10 T1 entries were covered by just over 20s, indicating that the alternative energy T1-Ultimate Audi machines and the turbo-charged T1+ cars are reasonably even in performance levels so far.
Speaking to DirtFish upon returning to the bivouac on Saturday afternoon, Ekström said: “I think you can see that the performance difference is pretty fair.
“I knew Sébastien would be driving flat-out, and I was doing my best as well and the difference was just one second. And between the others, you have seen it is also very close, so I expect a very tough rally.
“I know that Sébastien would be fast on those kinds of stages, and many others as well, but this is actually a one-on-one rally and he’s the expert, although I have also done some rallying and Extreme E and rallycross before, so I know that if you want to beat him, you need to be bang on the money.
“But I felt like I had a clean run, and when we exited the last corner, I said to Emil that at least I gave it my best shot and I would be OK with the result.”
Audi comes into this year’s Dakar with a lighter, more aero efficient iteration of its RS Q e-tron with which it debuted in cross-country rallying on the Saudi Arabian event in 2022.
The maiden voyage into the unknown for the Q Motorsport-run operation encountered some notable rough patches, as damper issues during the opening week and a navigational error in the roadbook meant all three cars were out of the running for overall victory.
But Ekström reckons that the lessons learned during the second week back in January, and an extensive testing regime, have helped the team build a car which is fit to challenge for top honors in 2023.
“Last year, we were starting with rookies last year with a concept car and it was quite a good concept, we just had some issues with the dampers over the rally,” Ekström explained.
“Then over the off-season so to speak, the car got lighter, and the aerodynamics got more efficient and then a lot of details.
“The BOP [Balance of Performance] changed a little bit so the performance is down a little bit, but it looks like we have done our homework and you can see the pure pace, but the Dakar is two weeks, and the prologue is 12km or something. There are many kilometers left but it’s nice to see that we are on the pace.
“The car was already feeling fine in the second week, we didn’t do so much development work on the suspension during the off-season. We managed to win a stage and Carlos [Sainz] and Stéphane [Peterhansel] also got some, so I think we have already got a base understanding of the car, but you can fine-tune forever.”
Ekström is fully aware that the short prologue stage is far from a representative performance for the entire Dakar but believes the biggest key to securing a strong result will rely on the old adage of consistency and minimizing time loss.
“I think it will come down to consistency, to read and to follow the roadbook and keep it on a consistent level. Last year we had one big hiccup with the roadbook but apart from that, we were fine. I think anyone who wants to win, needs to go through the same thing, staying focused 100%.”