Why the next week will shape modern history for Audi

The German manufacturer has a strong record of revolution in the dirt. Will Dakar be its nemesis?

DAKAR 2024 – STAGE 2

Audi has a habit of revolutionizing motorsport.

Quattro permanently changed rallying; the days of two-wheel drive at the top level were banished to the history books by its four-wheel-drive system crushing everybody.

Ingolstadt boldly insisted on running turbodiesel engines at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: the Audi R10 immediately became the first diesel-powered car to win Le Mans, followed by another six victories between the R10, R15 and R18 cars that followed.

Dakar was supposed to continue the trend. The RS Q e-tron was supposed to have the same game-changing effect as a consequence of a radical rethink of how a Dakar rally car is designed.

Audi wanted electric. But there are no charging stations in the middle of the desert to plug into. So it went left field. A two-liter four-cylinder turbo petrol engine charges a high-voltage battery, as does an electric motor borrowed from Audi’s former Formula E program. And they fitted two more electric motors to each axle.

It was a complicated way to go about winning Dakar. And winning was not a hope, it was a requirement: showing an electrically driven car could win a grueling test of endurance was the whole point.

Thus far, Audi has failed. And now the clock is ticking; the Dakar program has already been canned. This is it. The next six days represent the last chance saloon. It’s win or bust: the RS Q e-tron has to get the job done next week, or Audi’s track record of showing up, making a point of changing the fundamentals of going racing and departing with rivals scrambling to copy its innovations, having taken the winners’ trophy back to Germany, comes to an end.

Audi - Dakar Rally 2024

At the rally’s halfway point, Carlos Sainz leads the way, with Mattias Ekström 20 minutes behind in second place. An Audi one-two; now that would be quite a way to prove that the highly unorthodox, almost shoe-horned method of getting electric to win Dakar, was worth all the time and money invested.

But breathing down their neck is Sébastien Loeb in the Prodrive Hunter, only 10 minutes adrift of Ekström. To an extent, Loeb has the same mission: the Hunter must win to cement its legacy before it’s replaced by a Dacia in 2025.

In year one, the RS Q e-tron was fast but unreliable. The dampers kept breaking; punctures were a nightmare to change due to the bodywork design and there were energy spikes from the electric motors. So along came the E2. Tyres were easier to swap over in the middle of the desert, the car was lighter, more aero-efficient and software for the power controllers was tweaked.


It got worse in year two. Sainz’s car nosedived and flipped end-over-end after cresting a dune. Stones kept getting stuck in awkward places, like the struts, rims and calipers. Ekström ended as the best Audi in 14th overall.

And then, midway through 2023, the swinging axe fell. No more Dakar after 2024.

One last evolution was developed. The car is even lighter, the suspension systems have been upgraded to avoid a repeat of Sainz’s 2023 accident, and there are 15 kilowatts of extra power on tap.

It’s already gone wrong for one of Audi’s trio. Stéphane Peterhansel is now out of contention after dropping three hours on the 48-hour ‘chrono’ stage; he lost hydraulics which not only knocked out the power steering but also the hydraulic jack system, removing his ability to change punctures. And, helpfully, there is no old-fashioned hand jack in the back as standby.


For Sainz and Ekström, there were only brief pauses to dig their respective RS Q e-trons out of the sand. History can still be made.

But would that history be remembered as a game-changing shift in how to build a winning cross-country machine, a victory for the electric motor, or just a Dakar win for whichever Audi driver crosses Friday’s finish line first?

When the levee broke and Lancia could no longer fend off the Quattro deluge, it and everyone else had no choice but to adopt four-wheel drive. When Peugeot rocked up to Le Mans to try to end Audi’s near decade-long hegemony of prototype racing, it did so with a diesel motor.

Dakar Rally 2024

Loeb, trying to spoil Audi’s final shot at Dakar glory with the Hunter, won’t be in a car running electric motors, regardless of what Audi might achieve next week. Dacia’s new prototype will be a combustion-engined effort with synthetic fuel in the tank instead. M-Sport’s new effort with the Ford Ranger T1+ packs a 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6.

Whether Audi gets to end its Dakar program on a high or not, it seems there will be no revolution this time.

Words:Alasdair Lindsay