Vorsprung durch Technik — “progress through technology” — has been Audi Sport’s slogan since its formation in 1981. During that time Audi has been one of the most prolific manufacturers in international motorsports. World Rally Championship, Pikes Peak, Super Touring Cars, DTM, GT racing, Le Mans — Audi has earned victories and championships in almost every form of racing. But there’s one event missing from Audi’s CV. The most grueling off-road race on the planet: Dakar.
In 2022, for the first time ever, Audi competed in the Dakar Rally. And the automaker did it with a completely unprecedented type of machine.
The Paris-Dakar Rally was first held way back in 1978. The route started in Paris, France, and traversed 6,200 miles to Dakar, Senegal on the Eastern coast of Africa. Unfortunately, the rally was canceled in 2008 due to terrorist threats in Mauritania. Subsequently, in 2009 the event was moved to Chile, staying in South America until 2019. Since 2020, the rally has been held in Saudi Arabia; it’s this version of the race that Audi has chosen to take on.
Remember Audi Sport’s motto, progress through technology? The company’s Dakar machine certainly aimed to live up to that phrase. Meet the Audi RS Q E-Tron.
The RS Q E-Tron is technically a hybrid, but it’s unlike any hybrid you’ve ever seen. The vehicle’s motivation is pure electric, with a motor at each axle driven by a 52-kWh battery. But since there are no charging stations in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, and Dakar stages can stretch to hundreds of miles, Audi needed a way to keep those electrons flowing. The solution comes in the form of a gasoline-powered 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine taken straight from Audi’s DTM program.
Now your first comment is going to be, “A gas-powered EV? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”
I posed the same question to the Audi engineers on hand at the media event for the RS Q E-Tron. Their response was honest and straightforward. “It is not possible with today’s battery technology to realize an all-electric BEV off-road vehicle for the Dakar Rally under these conditions,” said Lukas Folie, a high-voltage battery engineer.
With road cars making the inevitable march to electric power, Audi wanted to test its EV technology in the Dakar rally’s grueling environment. Knowing the issues they would face with charging, Audi Sport built the RS Q E-Tron as a proof-of-concept, providing valuable experience and data in a punishing racing environment while avoiding the shortcomings of nonexistent infrastructure.
The RS Q E-Tron works like a diesel-electric locomotive. The internal combustion engine spins a motor-generator unit (MGU) that feeds the high-voltage battery. In turn, that battery powers two more MGUs, one at each axle, that drive the car and recapture energy via regenerative braking.
The internal combustion engine reaches its maximum efficiency between 4,500 and 6,000 rpm. Because it’s not tasked with directly driving the wheels, the engine’s load is relatively constant, allowing it to operate exclusively in its most efficient rev range.
So what’s it like to drive this technological marvel? In a word: Awesome.
Wedging my way behind the wheel of the RS Q E-Tron was a bit of a contortion act. While the car is physically large, inside and out, the door opening is surprisingly narrow. To make matters worse, the cockpit sits a couple of feet off the ground, necessitating a big step up to a narrow metal stay that you then use to pull all your weight up and maneuver your opposite leg through the door and into the cockpit.
From there, you half-slide, half-fall into the seat. Then you need to figure out how the hell to get your other leg inside the car — which isn’t easy, given that your outside foot is somewhere above your head. Thank goodness Dakar doesn’t have an old-fashioned Le Mans-style footrace start.
Once the entry process is complete, there’s a surprising amount of room in the cockpit even for my 6’1” frame. From the driver’s seat, all you see is acres of carbon fiber. Not surprising, as the hybrid drivetrain entails quite a bit of mass, and weight is the enemy of all race cars. The vehicle’s front bodywork is rather short, and drops away sharply. Combine that with ample ride height, and the RS Q E-Tron makes you feel slightly disconnected from everything around the car.
Once I was rolling, the strangest sensation was the drone of the 2.0-liter engine, a sound that never changed pitch no matter what I did with the accelerator pedal. The second odd realization: The steering is insanely light. I’m talking 80’s Buick Riviera light. Steering the RS Q E-Tron is akin to playing an arcade racing game with no force-feedback in the steering wheel. You basically aim the wheel in the direction you’d like to go and hope the car will obey.
Next up on the list of surprises are the massive A-pillars. It was a bit of a chore finding apexes on the tight, rallycross-style circuit Audi provided for us, as the huge A-pillars always seemed to be blocking exactly what I needed to see. You could miss a herd of water buffalo behind these things.
Then again, had I spent two seconds thinking about what this car was designed to do, I wouldn’t have been surprised by any of these unusual characteristics. The tight, awkward entry isn’t really an issue in Dakar rally racing: The driver and co-pilot are only getting in and out once a day. The cockpit needs to be roomy to allow both occupants to do their job; the steering needs to be super light, almost effortless, because the RS Q E-Tron is designed to run all day in deep sand at speeds approaching 150 mph. With normal steering, the driver would be fatigued before leaving the paddock. And that A-pillar? You roll one of these things at speed, and you’ll very quickly appreciate all that beefy structure around you.
That’s the cool thing about getting to drive a factory race car: It’s designed for one singular purpose. In this case, that purpose is to go as fast as possible over the Saudi Arabian desert in the hands of some of the best, most experienced rally drivers alive.
After I got my head around this car’s purpose and the design choices that cater to it, I was able to start raising the pace. The RS Q E-Tron works best when you’re carrying some speed into corners — the long-travel suspension (nearly 14 inches in total) compresses quite a bit under braking. If you come off the brakes too soon (i.e. before you start to turn in), all of the weight transfers off of the nose and you’re left with zero front-end grip to turn.
So the trick to getting the big E-Tron to hustle around this tight circuit is to go as deep as possible into the corner on the brakes, then aggressively back to throttle to get the rear end to step out and help point you through the corner. That’s what I did, pushing harder and harder, right up until my co-driver Emil Bergkvist — who happens to be Mattias Ekström’s co-driver in the Dakar rally, as well as a Junior World Rally champ himself — points out the handbrake lever at my right elbow.
And now I’m an idiot.
By the time I started playing around with the handbrake, it was my final lap. I never quite got the feel for it. I trundled off the circuit exhilarated that I got behind the wheel of a futuristic factory Audi rally racer, but somewhat dejected that I didn’t make use of everything the car had to offer.
Emil gave me a thumbs-up and told me he was very comfortable riding shotgun with me. He wasn’t scared of my driving at all. I told him that just means I wasn’t going fast enough. He chuckled. Every pro racer thinks like this. We can’t help it.
I’ve been reflecting on my time at the wheel of the RS Q E-Tron. I keep coming back to Audi Sport’s motto. Does this rally machine’s hybrid drivetrain make sense? Perhaps not: Converting gasoline to battery power to motor torque is a pretty complex dance. But when you look at the RS Q E-Tron’s purpose — a rolling testbed for the EV drivetrains that will power future racing machines — you get a true appreciation for what Audi has accomplished.