Audi has done it. The German brand made history last week, winning the fearsome Dakar Rally with an ingenious range-extender EV driven by the legendary Carlos Sainz Sr.
The win marks the first time an electrified vehicle has won Dakar, arguably the world’s toughest race, since its inception in 1978. This year’s gruelling off-road endurance test sent 778 competitors on a nearly 8,000 kilometre journey (roughly 5,000 of which was timed) through Saudi Arabia, racing across its unforgiving deserts and infamous, towering dunes of the Empty Quarter. After two weeks of racing, the Audi RS Q e-tron emerged victorious.
“It is difficult to put this victory into words. We have written a piece of motorsport history. It will take a few more days for this to really sink in,” said Rolf Michl, head of Audi Motorsport. It’s a big win for Audi on this, the brand’s third attempt at the Dakar. It’s also a big win for co-driver Lucas Cruz and driver Carlos Sainz Sr, father of Ferrari F1 pilot Carlos Sainz Jr.
At 61 years-old, Sainz Sr extends his record as the Dakar Rally’s oldest ever winner. It’s the fourth win for the Spaniard, making him one of the most successful Dakar racers of all-time.
“The team has developed a very special concept with which we are the first in the Dakar Rally. Only Audi was brave enough to take this risk,” Sainz said. “I’m happy that we’ve made history with it. And in one of the toughest editions of this rally that I have experienced.”
Audi’s Ingenious RS Q e-tron
Audi’s victory is an historic one for EVs everywhere. The team’s purpose-built RS Q e-tron is a complicated carbon-fibre beast. Technically it’s a range-extender, not a pure EV; think of it as a distant cousin to the plug-in hybrid TFSI e models in Audi’s expanding EV lineup. The rally racer is powered by two electric motors, ripped out of the company’s Formula-E racecars. There’s one motor at each axle, for high-precision quattro all-wheel drive.
But, here’s where it gets really interesting. Since there’s no high-speed EV chargers in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, the motors are powered by a 52 kWh high-voltage battery that is recharged on-the-fly by a 2.0-litre combustion engine. The engine only extends the driving range, recharging the battery once it’s depleted. There’s no mechanical link between the combustion engine and the wheels; all the twist comes from those two electric motors, one at each axle.
The combustion engine is taken from Audi’s DTM racecars, so it’s both extremely lightweight and also powerful. As the company explains, “Audi has been using reFuel to power the energy converter [combustion engine] since the 2023 Dakar Rally. This residue-based product does not compete with food. It helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 60 percent.”
All told, the RS Q e-tron could produce well over 600 horsepower, but its output is limited to under 400 hp for the rally. One of the big challenges for the team has been weight. EVs are heavy. The battery alone weighs 370 kilograms, which makes it difficult to get the weight of the complete vehicle down to the minimum allowed 2,100 kg.
Audi refined its Dakar competitor every year, taking lessons learned in the first two attempts and changing the concept as necessary. For example, after suffering several bad tire punctures in previous years, Dr. Leonardo Pascali — the project’s Technical Director since 2023 — explained that this year the springs, dampers and bump stops in the chassis had been reworked to better distribute some of the loads over time. A larger front CFRP crash structure helps to better absorb repeated impacts of the sort that happen when you’re cresting unseen ruts at high-speed.
“The Audi RS Q e-tron has already caused quite a stir in its first two Dakar appearances,” says Rolf Michl, head of Audi Motorsport. “Audi was once again a technological pioneer in its outstanding motorsport history. We have initiated a paradigm shift. The combination of an electric drivetrain and a reFuel-powered energy converter is unique and very efficient.”
Audi’s car looks wildly futuristic too, like some sci-fi Mars-rover. Needless to say, we love it.
Unfortunately, this may well be Audi’s last year at Dakar. The brand is gearing up to compete in Formula 1 beginning in 2026. Since Audi has conquered the Dakar Rally, they’ve set their sights even higher.