Audi’s intentions to Compete in the toughest rally in the world using an electric car, started 15 months ago with a white sheet of paper. The company closed its former rally division in the late 1980s and admittedly lost almost all the knowledge it had acquired during Audi’s 1982 and 1984 World Rally Championships due to depletion of staff.
The Dakar Rally is a criminal event for off-road endurance with ridiculous dimensions. The distances at each stage can be up to 900 kilometers (560 miles) per day. The terrain is much more difficult than seen in conventional rallies, so vehicles must be designed specifically for the task – only modified road vehicles will not interrupt it.
The race began in December 1977, following an incident in which Thierry Sabin got lost in the Tenere Desert while competing in the Cote-Cote Rally Abidjan-Nice in 1975. During this involuntary diversion, he decided that the desert would be a good place for regular competition. About 182 cars started the inaugural rally in Paris. Only 74 traveled 10,000 km (6,200 miles) across the Sahara to the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
As a result of the pandemic, without the opportunity to fully test any equipment in racing conditions, Audi’s goal this first year back in rally sport was simply to finish the Dakar. However, in the middle of the event, all three cars were still running and the team even won the 636km third stage, driving rally veteran Carlos Sainz, 59. “The biggest surprise is everything works,” a team spokesman told WIRED.
At first glance, Audi’s 2022 Dakar contender has little to do with your average family car. RS Q e-tron is a giant toy Tonka, 4.5 meters long and two meters high. Beneath Darth Vader’s body is a tubular frame backed by carbon panels and a storage battery, three electric motors and a petrol engine. It is safe to assume that nothing like this will drive on a street near you.
So why is Audi doing this? This is partly the prestige of Dakar, of course: from the very beginning, this event has been a symbol of the adventure and romance of the desert. After initially moving from Paris to Dakar, the event moved to South America in 2008 following a terrorist attack in North Africa. Although geographically shifted, the name remained in 2019. Dakar moved again, this time to Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to reclaim the desert’s origins. Winning the Dakar is still prestigious, and 2022 is Audi’s first attempt.
But at the same time, Audi is determined to become a first-class electric brand and wants to win the Dakar with a battery. This is extremely challenging, given that racers have to travel up to 600 miles a day, driving through some of the most remote and inhospitable landscapes on Earth. They hardly see a camel, nothing that the charger for electric cars.
But what Audi sees is an opportunity – a chance to experiment with an old idea that is back: the range extender. This is a battery-powered electric car that also has a gasoline engine on board that acts as a power supply. The engine never drives the wheels, it just keeps the batteries running while you ride. Ten years ago, the range extenders were the “future”: Vauxhall (Buick in the US) and BMW offered them while Audi developed a concept car.