"Win on sunday, sell on monday": Win a race on Sunday, and customers line up at the dealerships on Monday – this was the motto carmakers used to follow when they got involved in motorsports. The connection between cups could be measured. Sales figures not – believing in them was enough for the marketing strategists. In the meantime, however, there are also solid reasons to spend a lot of money on racing. E-mobility has long been part of many racing series. Ideal for trying out a new technology that could also be used in production cars in a few years' time. An example: Audi's e-vehicle for desert rallies.
When Audi speaks of the most complex race car in its brand history, this is no exaggeration. The RS Q E-Tron was created on a white sheet of paper, without a prototype and limited only by a relatively vague set of regulations. However, restrictions were imposed by Corona and internal doubters. Their number even increased after the first simulation of a Dakar stage on the computer.
But the Audi engineers, from whose ranks the idea came, ultimately had the right hunch. Their car works and is fast. This was demonstrated by the results at the first event at the beginning of the year, the 2022 Dakar Rally: four stage wins, 14 stage podium finishes and ninth place overall for Mattias Ekström/Emil Bergkvist were all impressive.
The Dakar Audi is powered by two electric motors with (theoretically) 340 hp maximum output each. According to the Dakar regulations, however, both are limited to 392 hp. A differential lock on each axle, in conjunction with a center differential simulated by software, ensures that each wheel receives exactly as much power as is needed. Equipping each wheel with its own electric motor to save on gearboxes was rejected early on. "In the event of a chassis failure, as can easily happen at the Dakar, the 800-volt power system would be affected. And that would be the end of it," explains technical project manager Benedikt Brunninger.
DTM engine as power generator
The engines are powered by a 52 kWh battery – far too little for a day's driving. And because recharging for hours on end during the race is not a solution, the electricity is produced on the road by a combustion engine. This has been practiced for decades on ships or railroads with diesel engines. What is special about Audi, however, is that the mothballed engines from the DTM were reactivated for this purpose. "There was no alternative either in terms of weight or performance, and certainly not in view of the tight schedule," Brunninger clarifies. It remains a secret how much power the once 600-plus horsepower units now have for desert use.
They start automatically as required and then run at around 4000 to 6000 rpm. It doesn't matter whether the driver is braking or accelerating – which is why the soundscape seems rather unusual. Like a neighbor drilling steadily and unstoppably into concrete. But even without the four-cylinder activated, the Audi RS Q E-Tron develops a goosebump-inducing sound – a curious and spacey mix of whirring and whistling.
Is the Audi RS Q E-Tron pure greenwashing?? After all, the car is driven electrically and e-mobility is promoted, but in the end it still burns gasoline. No, because the decisive factor is: Electric drive is unbeatable off-road. Its high torque is available from the first fraction of a second. This is an invaluable advantage when negotiating obstacles or steep inclines. In this discipline, plug-in hybrid SUVs also outperform their conventionally powered counterparts.
E-drive an advantage on dunes
"But it's not just this instant boost alone," Emil Bergkvist clarifies. The Audi co-driver guides us behind the wheel of the Dakar monster and gives tips on how to get even more out of the RS Q E-Tron. "Just as important is the extreme responsiveness of the system, especially when driving on dunes."Dunes are the biggest challenge. You never know what's behind the dune crest – that's why you have to approach it slowly. Because too much speed on a steep downhill slope could result in a rollover. On the other hand, the car needs a lot of thrust to even get up the dune. That could be dosed much more finely with the E-drive. "And we're not talking about two or three dunes, but maybe 200 per leg," Bergkvist emphasizes the advantage. No wonder, even the Dakar winner of 2022, Nasser Al-Attiyah in the conventional Toyota Hilux, rates the Audi as the fastest car in the field.
The RS Q E-Tron has plenty of thrust in any case. On the gravel of the Sardinian test track he delivers the with a lot of understeer – until I give him the impulse to oversteer with the lever of the handbrake, which looks like in former times. Mechanical handbrake. E-drive – this needs a little practice. But otherwise, the Dakar Audi drives in a good-natured, almost well-behaved manner – if you disregard the overflowing multifunction displays, which fortunately the skilled co-pilot keeps an eye on during the test drive.
Measured against the technical revolution that the car represents and its complexity, the Audi RS Q E-Tron drives really straightforwardly. Even if your name isn't Carlos Sainz, Stéphane Peterhansel or Mattias Ekström. But we normal drivers will have to wait until the technology of the bolide is also found in our cars.