It’s getting dark now. Dark and cold. Darker and colder. But still, Carlos continues. There’s no sign of Sainz stopping. This is Ingolstadt, late on a Monday afternoon. It’s Dakar roll-out time.
He’s stopped. Briefly. But now he’s going to the gravel to do one run over one jump. It’s more than one. Eventually, he’s done. Maybe he’s drained the battery aboard his Audi RS Q e-tron.
He hasn’t. One more run.
For the two-time World Rally Champion and three-time Dakar Rally winner, some things will never change. The concept of enough seat time, enough testing, enough experience remains as alien as it ever was to a man who has made a career out of being the best of the best.
I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never been to Ingolstadt before. How can this be? Four decades ago, this place was the very epicenter of our world. Everything we’ve grown accustomed to in rallying began right here when Ferdinand Piëch convinced board members that project EA282 was a good idea in 1977. Project EA282 became better known by one word: Quattro. The Italian for four changed our world in this town.
There are places, random places in the world which mean everything. Turin’s one. Cologne’s another. Jyväskylä needs no introduction and Ingolstadt is right up there with all of them.
Today’s Audi Sport facility is very different from the place which fostered the revolution, but as the four rings are returned to the dirt of off-road motorsport, the organization has never been stronger. Or less ready.
The upshot of an eye-watering timeline – in which the unthinkable was not only thought, but put into play in a matter of months – is Stefan Dreyer (Audi’s head of development in motorsport) standing upfront telling me making the Saudi Arabia start is a bonus and a finish would be a result.
“It took courage to take the risk with this project,” he says with a wry smile and slight shake of the head – almost like he’s trying to tell himself that this things really is real. It really is happening.
“This is the most complex car we ever worked on at Audi,” he adds, not making his reality any easier.
“When you open it up, it’s like a pirate’s treasure chest in there – there’s so much stuff. How many sensors? Honestly? I have no idea.
“Look, the car will be what it will be. We will be there and we’ll be there with three electric motors, one of which combines with an internal combustion engine to make an energy converter to charge the battery.
“The three MGUs, the [electric] motors sit on the front axle, rear axle and on the ICE. They sit there, but they can be talking a different language to each other.
“And the car’s overweight. It would be nice to lose some of that weight over Christmas – but that doesn’t usually happen…
“What can we do? Reliability is a target. It would be cool to go for the victory, but I don’t think so. Stage wins are something we can think about.”
OK, enough. Enough already.
If the RS Q e-tron works, and works every day between January 2 and January 14, it’ll win. No question. OK, almost no question.
Some of the Audi spiel sounds familiar. We’ve heard it before and we’ve heard it from within the Volkswagen Group before. Wind the clock back almost 10 years to the winter of 2012. With the Monte Carlo Rally fast approaching, Jost Capito (then director of Volkswagen Motorsport) told me: “I think we can go for the stage wins this season. And podiums, but a win could be complicated…”
Capito’s cars were second first time out (at the 2013 Monte Carlo Rally), then first on 80% of the WRC rounds they started for the following four years. Same stable. Same spin?
“Doing this in this timeframe, I mean making a car – a complex car like this – for Dakar in less than 12 months is difficult,” continues Dreyer, in more serious, more hushed tones. “But then with the pandemic and everybody making the home office. It was… well, it was not easy.”
For one man, being ready is everything. Being tried, tested and totally prepared is the only way to go.
What does Carlos think?
“I remember the first day we come to put the car [in] to drive. I went to go and it stopped immediately,” Sainz revealed.
“It has been moving slowly, a little more, a little more, more than any other project I have been involved in. We needed to move slowly, but at the same time we needed to hurry up! I think we have achieved that with some really cool work from everybody and when I say everybody, I mean everybody.
“The timing and the challenge to achieve new things every time we tested was incredible. Why this stopped? Why that happened? Everybody worked to make this happen. This is going to be a difficult thing, but we are 100% committed to what we are doing – nobody can stay behind in this challenge, nobody can hide. We are all in this together.”
And when Sainz says we’re all in, trust me, we’re all very much in.
Can it win though? Best man to ask is a man who knows more about winning than anybody else. Let’s ask Mr Dakar himself, Stéphane ’14-times’ Peterhansel.
After a short pause, to consider his answer, he goes with: “It’s not easy to say. You know we did the first kilometer in this car just four or five months ago here and now, in one month, we are at the start. For sure, it’s not enough time. All the problems we had, we found a solution. Did we do enough kilometers, maybe we didn’t, but still in the tests [in Morocco] we have now done 8000km – this is better than we can expect.
“If we win [in 2022] it will be a surprise. I hope to win the next one [in 2023].”
With that, the talking is done and we’re being nudged in the direction of the door and the test track. It’s time to take a look at Dakar’s future in action.
Sitting alongside an RS Q e-tron in Audi Sport’s reception area is a slightly Mad Max-looking E-tron. It’s dressed from top to bottom in Red Bull, but the spikes on the tires are intimidating to say the least.
“The new specification for Sweden,” grins Mattias Ekström. “This is the car I drove up The Streif…”
The Streif, to the uninitiated, is the world’s scariest downhill ski race. It’s a course on the fearsome Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel, Austria.
Sensing my next question, Ekström gets in before me. “To drive up The Streif wasn’t… it wasn’t on my bucket list.”
I nod, trying to look like I get where he’s coming from. And I kind of do. I have actually driven up the steepest street in Britain – Vale Street in Bristol.
Admittedly, I did it in the summer, with less ice around. But still, I can’t imagine there was much different in angles… 22° is pretty out there, even for a Volvo XC90.
Hmm… Mattias and the E-tron did 85°. On ice.
There’s a brief moment, one where I’d be reasonably happy to a) not have mentioned Vale Street or b) be somewhere else. The DTM’s megastar rally-driving rallycrosser turned Dakar racer saves me.
“Stupidest thing I have ever done,” he says, laughing out loud.
I’m glad to have my mate Mattias with me for this bit. We’ve got to the technical aspect of the RS Q e-tron and he’s well aware of my technical limitations.
Apologies if you find the next bit a touch on the simple side, but it’s the way I roll when it comes to direct drive and MGUs.
So, the car has three MGUs – that’s a motor-generator unit. One is bolted on the front axle, one on the rear and one on the side of a two-liter DTM engine which sits in the back of the car, not far from a battery which weighs a whopping 350kg, but could probably power your iPhone and my laptop forever. And ever.
The immediate thought is that when the battery coughs and dies, internal combustion steps in and takes over. Wrong. That’s hybrid. This isn’t really hybrid.
“Think of the ICE as a generator,” said Ekström. “When the battery is running low, the engine starts and basically recharges the battery with the help from the third MGU.”
Standing in the factory listening to Mattias, all of that made sense. I nodded enthusiastically and genuinely got the science. The sentence before the last one… I think I’ll call it an energy convertor for ease.
Look, here’s the deal, the battery has 50kWh and the whole car can generate 500kW of power.
That’s impressive. I think.
“It is!” grins Ekström. Old money?
“You don’t know how to do this? To convert kW to bhp? You multiply by 1.34102.”
The answer is 670bhp. Now that really is impressive.
The only downside is that Audi might not be allowed to use it all. How so?
“We’re still working with the organizers on that,” explains Sven Quandt, team principal and mastermind of multiple Dakar campaigns.
“It’s still being finalized, along with some other aspects of the car. It is quite last-minute, but I feel that whatever happens from now, if we don’t succeed in Dakar, what we have done with this car in such a short time is already and incredible achievement.”
It’s time to roll out the Sainz chassis. Carlos is up and running. A couple of laps and he’s done.
He’s done after a couple of laps? Seriously?
There’s a problem with the intercom. He’s back out. And this time we watch the sun descend, but Audi’s night is not a silent one.
What’s that noise? It’s a weird droning noise. Back to our tech guru Mattias.
“That’s the energy convertor, the ICE. It’s now charging the battery. It runs at a constant rpm for maximum efficiency. Don’t forget, this DTM engine isn’t there to give power, it’s been worked to make sure it delivers the maximum charge possible. Listen…”
Ekström pauses as his team-mate tips the Audi into a tightish corner. It’s very odd, the ‘engine’ note doesn’t change.
Being direct drive, there’s no gearbox. Just two pedals. Go and stop. Emerging from the cockpit with very warm hands, Sainz is quick to extoll the virtues of this drive type.
“Sometimes, you can be in the dunes and when you hit the bottom of the dune you could be in the wrong gear – in the time it takes you to change down, you lose momentum and you can get bogged down,” he said.
“With this car, you give slightly more throttle and always we have lots of torque.
“And when we’re braking, we’re having the maximum regeneration, so it [retards] the drive very, very quickly.”
Ekström steps in.
“We won’t use many sets of brake pads,” is his addition. “Think of it as a Scalextric set, except we don’t do any coasting. Your finger is on or it’s off. You have throttle or you’re stopping.”
Honestly, Audi’s RS Q e-tron is a thing of absolute beauty and total wonder. For those of a certain age, my introduction to the future was like watching Doc Emmett Brown showing Marty McFly around a DeLorean for the first time.
What happens when the RS Q e-tron hits 88mph? Not long before we find out…