The warning signs were clear at the end of the 2022 Dakar Rally. While it didn’t win outright following a plethora of issues for all three of its RS Q e-tron machines, Audi’s pace – four stage wins across its three cars – had certainly turned heads on its maiden outing in the rally raid.
So, you may be asking, does that make Audi the clear-cut favorite to take victory in 2023? The data suggests it will be in the fight, provided it has a clean run, but handing out the victory laurels just yet may prove to be premature.
Picking a winner for this year’s Dakar is by no means an easy task, which is just how it should be.
Key to understanding – or not as it turns out – the pecking order lies in the new-for-2023 FIA technical regulations, which have reduced the power output of the T1+ cars – Toyota and Bahrain Raid Xtreme, among others – while increasing the weight of the T1-Ultimate Audi by 100kg at sea level.
There’s not been enough representative competition involving all the main protagonists to ensure an absolute level playing field, so it may well be four or five days into the event before we get a true sense of who has the advantage and who doesn’t.
And among the W2RC-contesting Toyota and BRX, and the primarily testing-only Audi, different teams have been running different programs.
So, what about Audi, then? Where does it stand ahead of its second Dakar attempt?
“[The] Morocco Rally [in October] was our first contact with the latest regulations, with all the other competitors which was good as we could see exactly where we are against them,” Audi’s team principal Sven Quandt told DirtFish.
“We know that [Toyota’s] Nasser [Al-Attiyah] for example was not showing all of his potential there; this is normal as you don’t want to go into something like the 24 Hours of Nürburgring and do a good race before.
“So, let’s see where we are, and nobody knows really if the Equivalence of Technology is there or not for everybody. They call it an EOT but for me it is the BOP [Balance of Performance]. In the end, it’s the acceleration in a straight line which they will measure, which is quite fair because we don’t know who is going to be faster.”
Quandt, while accepting that the electric RS Q e-tron will possess the same amount of power in the dunes and at altitude as the rival GR Hilux DKR and the Hunter cars, said the enforced EOT isn’t necessarily a catch-all.
“It can cause anyone issues, we never know,” he explained.
“The T1+ guys say the Audi as a T1-U is faster, to which we say: ‘we’re not so sure’ because we have quite good advantage when it comes to acceleration, so yes, we may be better in this area, but it’s something where the FIA is making some complete guesses and in other areas, they have made completely wrong guesses.
“They try to do their best, make good calculations and use good data, but in the end, only the reality will show.
“For example, a few weeks ago, they asked us to give them some data from our acceleration. So, we gave them the data and they came back to us and told us that it didn’t match their own calculations, and we said: “of course!” because it depends completely on what sort of soil you have got, and the soil determines how good your acceleration is.
I would say it takes around four to five years to be in the fight for the victory so it’s definitely not easyGus Beteli, BRX team principal
“It could be that it benefits electric or combustion. There are so many factors involved that it makes it really difficult to predict before the race whether it is fair or not, so that’s why everyone agreed to the new rules.”
Across the bivouac in the BRX camp, team principal Gus Beteli believes the Hunter’s recent performances in the W2RC – victory for customer GCK with Guerlain Chicherit in Morocco and for the main team with Sébastien Loeb in Andalucía – have meant it’s right in the hunt for an overall victory on the Dakar next month.
“Our first Dakar, we finished fifth which was our best result so it shows how difficult it is to come in and be competitive and then on our second attempt we were second and fourth,” Beteli told DirtFish.
“It’s difficult for people to see just how hard it is to come and do well on the Dakar, and I would say it takes around four to five years to be in the fight for the victory so it’s definitely not easy.
“The car is a constant development and isn’t homologated so it’s an engineer’s dream. We have a lot of experience in racing and rallying, but not much experience in cross-country; it’s a completely different discipline and you have only a few events to get the experience.
“We’ve done a lot more work on improving the car, the team, the reliability and the performance and I think that has been seen a lot this year by the Hunter winning the last two rallies of the W2RC season.”
Having arrived on the Dakar at the end of the previous rule set, BRX have not had things straightforward. The team had to quickly move onto developing a vastly different car while running a dual campaign in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies, to meet the new T1+ regulations.
With nine-time World Rally champion Loeb and experienced Dakar competitor Orlando Terranova leading the effort, the Prodrive run operation is quietly confident.
Meanwhile with defending winners Toyota, another victory on the Dakar would certainly make it the most successful 12-month period for the South Africa run team, with Al-Attiyah claiming the inaugural W2RC title in Andalucía.
Toyota arguably has a bigger advantage than BRX – with whom it has contested the full W2RC campaign this year – having also run a full season of the South African Cross-Country championship with Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy.
The team not only won both titles but have benefitted from an extensive testing program focusing on performance and durability, which hasn’t always been the case in previous years.
“This is the first time that we’ve had a dedicated test car available for us in December and to be able to test durability before the Dakar has been a big boost to the team,” team principal Glyn Hall said during the team’s official launch press conference.
“We’ve found some good things and I don’t think we could have done a better job at preparing ourselves for the Dakar.
“The basic DNA of the car has remained the same, but we have made refinements in almost every area, and we’ve been focusing on the engine performance to ensure we get the most out of the car for our drivers. We’ve addressed every single issue we had from last year’s Dakar which should allow our drivers to push 100%.”
Hall has been around the block plenty of times in the past and knows no Dakar victory is assured, let alone a sweep of the podium, despite this being the obvious aim.
“It would be a dream beyond our imagination to fill the top three of the podium, so that’s the target,” said Hall.
“Our realistic commitment is to be on the podium and if we can explore the maximum limit of our potential, then I think we can be fighting for the victory on each day. We’ll be pushing to the limit every day.
“It’s not only Audi who are the threat, Mini have a substantial team, Prodrive as well, so we’re not short of competition, there will be some hard days and Audi were very fast last year. But we’ll see what the competition will be like.”