Saturday, March 2, 2024

Team Audi Sport regroups for Dakar testing

It’s not a secret that Team Audi Sport‘s 2023 Dakar Rally was a trainwreck. After arriving in Saudi Arabia with high expectations and a swanky new RS Q e-tron E2 that produced immediately with a stage win, the team ultimately struggled to keep up with Toyota and Prodrive before Carlos Sainz and Stéphane Peterhansel wrecked and Mattias Ekström had to settle for fourteenth overall.

In mid-May, the team returned to the Saudi desert to begin testing and examine what exactly went wrong. Much of the concerns surrounded tyre failures, for which Audi used two different BFGoodrich tyres to experiment in as similar conditions to the rally as possible. To achieve the latter, the car was driven across different courses like a thirteen-kilometre gravel-and-sand path and a 110-km stone track. Winds were particularly high during the test while temperatures ran as high as 42° C.

“Our technology, the entire team and our drivers and co-drivers have the potential to drive at the very front. Our stage results proved that, so it was all the more annoying that tyre failures and other problems set us back in January,” said Audi Motorsport head Rolf Michl. “Now we have to find solutions. Our systematically planned test was the next important step on this path after the theoretical analysis.”

The trio of drivers returned for the test, with Sainz having fully healed from the broken vertebrae he sustained in his Dakar crash in Stage #9. While Sainz and Ekström’s co-drivers Lucas Cruz and Emil Bergkvist were also present, Peterhansel was without Édouard Boulanger who was still recovering from his back injuries from their accident. As such, Cruz served as Peterhansel’s navigator too.

“Audi Sport supported this testing perfectly,” offered Sven Quandt, director of team partner Q Motorsport GmbH. “We were able to reproduce tyre failures during the runs, which is pleasing in that it allows us to analyse very well the conditions and circumstances that caused us headaches in January. Closely related to this are the suspension settings, which we have varied. We haven’t worked out a one hundred percent solution yet, but the test was valuable and we’re on the right track.”

In the four months since Dakar, Audi has not returned to the World Rally-Raid Championship, meaning Peterhansel did not defend his Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge victory. Ekström has continued to take part in the T3 category for South Racing while also racing in Extreme E for Sainz’s team as he continued treatment. Peterhansel nonetheless remained involved in rally raid by running the Morocco Desert Challenge weeks prior to the test on a bike for the first time since the 1990s. Sainz has been open about wanting to win one more Dakar Rally, which would give him four, especially in an electric vehicle like the RS Q e-tron.

The Dakar debacle led to uncertainty about Audi’s 2024 Dakar Rally plans, with an April report from MARCA revealing the team was wary of taking part if the performance gap between them and the aforementioned manufacturers could not be fairly bridged. Stage #5 of the 2023 Rally was marred by controversy when the FIA added eight kilowatts of horsepower to Audi’s top speed as part of the Equivalence of Technology policy, which allows for vehicles in the electric/hybrid T1.U subcategory like the RS Q e-tron E2 to be on a more level playing field with the petrol-based T1+ class like the Hiluxes and Hunters. Despite Toyota’s protests, the move ultimately mattered little as Audi struggled the rest of the way while Nasser Al-Attiyah won his second straight Dakar in a Hilux.