Audi’s Road To Dakar Rally: Electrifying The Desert

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In December, I covered Audi’s plans to electrify the Dakar Rally. The team has made good progress since then, with the concept of the prototype largely completed. First tests are planned for the middle of the year, and it will going to be using the motor-generator unit from its prior Formula-E car (but with needed modifications).

“With the Dakar project, we at Audi remain true to our philosophy of using new technologies in motorsport for the first time that are groundbreaking for future road cars,” says Julius Seebach, Managing Director of Audi Sport GmbH and responsible for all motorsport activities of Audi. “In our rally history, for example, this was the quattro drivetrain, and now we will test components for future electric drivetrains under extreme conditions at the Dakar Rally. At the same time, we offer exciting customer and fan experiences.”

Audi’s Formula-E motor-generator unit was built from scratch to support Audi’s team during the 2021 season, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to reinvent the wheel again. It will use three motors.

“We will have one MGU on the front axle and one on the rear axle. A third MGU serves as a generator to charge the high-voltage battery while driving,” says Andreas Roos, Audi’s DTM project manager. “Of course, we have to make modifications, because the desert has different challenges than in the cities where we are currently racing in Formula E: jumps, sand, the very long stages. But we can basically build on the expertise from Formula E and also from our Le Mans prototypes with the e-tron quattro.”

Audi is also developing its battery in-house. In Formula-E, all teams have to use the same battery pack from the same supplier so nobody gets an advantage. For Dakar, though, they get to build their whole drivetrain. With no charging infrastructure along the route, they’ll have to use an Audi 4-cylinder gas engine to produce electricity and charge their battery pack, but from there the vehicle will be all-electric.

“This engine is incredibly efficient and state of the art in terms of weight and consumption,” says Andreas Roos. “The important thing is: our drivetrain is fully electric. The TFSI engine is only used to charge the batteries on the special stages. The battery has to be charged while driving, as there are currently no other options to do so in the desert.” Audi does plan to run fully electric on all the liaison stages, though.

“The Dakar is unique and one of the last great adventures in the world,” says Sven Quandt, who will be running the operation at the Dakar Rally with his Q Motorsport team, together with Audi Sport. “I’m convinced that a brand can gain a lot from participating in the Dakar Rally, especially if you choose an innovative path like Audi has committed to with the electric drivetrain.”

Audi’s engineers are currently building the prototype at Audi Sport in Neuburg an der Donau. Rollout is scheduled for June, followed by a world premiere in July. After that, the team plans to put the vehicle through some serious punishment before the 2022 Dakar Rally.

About The Dakar Rally

The Dakar Rally is one of the most challenging automotive events on the planet. Originally run in Europe and Africa, the event is now run in different places around the world. It challenges vehicles to run in all environments, with the desert being the most punishing for drivers and vehicles alike.

Originally, the rally started in Paris, ran down through Europe, crossed the Mediterranean (by ferry), and then cut across the most remote parts of Saharan Africa, finishing in Dakar, Senegal. In 2008, the rally had to be cancelled due to security concerns, and in subsequent years moved to an equally remote route in South America. In 2020, it was in Saudi Arabia, also in places that are almost literally the middle of nowhere. The 2022 rally will also be held in Saudi Arabia.

Audi has been out of the rally game for a while, focusing on other motorsports, but it has a long history with it. Volkswagen (Audi’s parent company) had long experience with 4-wheel drive, starting with military vehicles. In 1981, Audi’s quattro technology revolutionized the sport. By having 4-wheel drive at all times, but with a locking differential that distributes power between front and rear axles, it proved to be a competitive advantage in rally events (including Dakar). Today, all rally cars are set up to be all-wheel drive, no matter who builds them, because it gives such an advantage.

Why This Matters

As I’ve pointed out in a number of past articles, racing is a great place for manufacturers to learn lessons when only a trophy is at stake and not the whole company. The whole automotive world has benefited from racing for over a century, with technologies like seat belts, crumple zones, and even mirrors having roots in the racing world. Racing may seem like a silly thing to people not into it, but the impacts and technology that comes out of it saves lives every day.

While there are some off-road electric vehicles, there aren’t as many as there are powered by gas or diesel. For serious, metal-breaking events like Dakar, it’s almost unheard of. While Audi isn’t running a full-electric battery EV in Dakar, it is running as much of an electric vehicle as physically possible for the event. This gives the company the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t in harsh off-road environments.

By testing EV technology against the worst deserts that the planet has to offer, it gives Audi (and the wider Volkswagen Group) the opportunity to go to the School of Hard Knocks, because there’s currently no other school for off-road EV design out there.

After all, everything that’s established now in the EV world took hard knocks to arrive at before it became the norm. Even Tesla didn’t want to do a dedicated EV platform at first, but found through trial and error that it couldn’t be done right any other way. In the same way, other companies are going to need to take risks and make mistakes to learn. Eventually, the whole EV world will benefit from what’s learned running a series hybrid at the Dakar Rally.

Source Audi press release. Featured image: Road To Dakar: Andreas Roos, Sven Quandt, Julius Seebach, image provided by Audi.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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