In the early 1980s, the Audi Quattro dominated rallying with four-wheel-drive technology that proved a game-changer for both rally cars and production vehicles. Audi was the first automaker to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a diesel-powered car, in 2006, and then with a hybrid powertrain, in 2012. Now the German company is aiming to add another first by entering its RS Q e-tron hybrid rally car in January’s Dakar Rally.
“We still have a lot to do before the Dakar Rally” – Andrea Roos of Audi Sport
Getting the RS Q e-tron Dakar Ready
The outlandish, high-riding RS Q e-tron is a newly-developed creation designed to test and prove technology that should eventually trickle down to Audi’s production models. To this end, it will compete in the 2022 edition of the famously grueling Dakar event (which, despite its name, now takes place entirely in Saudi Arabia).
“We want to usher in a new era at the Dakar Rally, while testing and further developing our e-tron technology under extreme conditions,” said Julius Seebach, Managing Director of Audi Sport GmbH, in July press release. “Our RS Q e-tron was created on a blank sheet of paper in record time and stands for Vorsprung durch Technik.”
Audi intends to be the first automaker to use an electrified drivetrain in combination with an efficient energy converter against conventionally-powered competitors in what is widely recognized as the world’s toughest rally.
But before this ultimate trial of what amounts to a high-tech test lab on wheels, Audi Sport GmbH – the high-performance car manufacturing subsidiary of Audi (itself a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group) – put the RS Q e-tron through its paces in the scorching temperatures and withering sandstorms of the Moroccan desert last month.
What is the Audi RS Q e-tron?
Audi unveiled the futuristic RS Q e-tron in July. It’s an off-road racing offshoot of its long-running e-tron sub-brand of premium electric and hybrid cars. Development of the RS Q e-tron has been impressively rapid, entirely taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic and always with the initial goal of competing in the 2022 Dakar Rally.
The RS Q e-tron combines two mildly modified electric motors from the Audi e-tron FE07 Formula E Car, one on each axle, for a combined 671 hp. The same turbocharged 2.0L, inline-4 found in the Audi RS5 Turbo DTM Class 1 touring car acts as a generator, charging the battery while driving by spinning up a third electric motor. This third electric motor also serves as a generator during braking, by partially recuperating energy that otherwise would be lost as heat.
The RS Q e-tron’s high-voltage, 815-pound 50-kWh battery, which Audi developed specifically for the Dakar Rally, was under particular scrutiny during recent testing in Germany, Spain, and most recently Morocco.
“It’s all about optimum temperature management and being able to call up the battery’s maximum performance,” said Andreas Roos, who’s responsible for factory motorsport projects at Audi Sport. “This is where we are learning with every test. And that’s exactly why we are going to the desert with an electrified drivetrain: We are gaining an incredible amount of experience that we are sharing with our colleagues from road car development.”
Conditions in Morocco during RS Q e-tron testing were even hotter than those expected in Saudi Arabia for the Dakar Rally itself — well over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) at times. And then there were violent sandstorms. But that was the point: to push the RS Q e-tron and its driver crews under the most extreme conditions to ensure that they are more than ready for the rally itself.
“Components such as the MGU [motor-generator units], for example, were basically not developed for use in such high ambient temperatures,” said Roos. “But the drivetrain and other components were also pushed to their limits or even beyond by the heat.”
All three Dakar driver crews were involved in the Morocco tests, with Dakar record winner Stéphane Peterhansel, Carlos Sainz, and Mattias Ekström taking turns at the wheel of the highly complex RS Q e-tron prototype, alongside their co-drivers Edouard Boulanger, Lucas Cruz, and Emil Bergkvist.
One hot topic during testing was cockpit comfort, as Dakar Rally stages can be as long as 560 miles in incredibly bruising conditions.
“For the test in Morocco, we made modifications so that the driver and co-driver have more space in the tight cockpit and can also communicate better with each other,” Roos continued. “The feedback was positive.”
What Happens Now?
Parallel to the Morocco testing, Audi Sport already started building the first RS Q e-tron intended for competition at its high-tech headquarters in the German town of Neuburg an der Donau. This vehicle will almost certainly display refinements inspired by lessons learned in the Moroccan desert.
“The test car is a prototype wherein not everything was a perfect fit yet,” says Benedikt Brunninger, Audi Sport Project Manager for the Dakar Rally. “In the case of the actual competition cars, we’re aiming for absolute perfection in terms of accurate fit.”
Audi’s e-tron FE07 already achieved an efficiency rating of over 95% for the powertrain overall, and 97% for the MGU inverter unit alone.
Audi Sport will be sharing what it learned in Morocco with colleagues from the company’s road car development teams. But before any of the RS Q e-tron’s technology comes anywhere near a production car or public road, there remains the small matter of the 2022 Dakar Rally. Further intensive testing, including entry into other cross-country rallies, are all part of Audi’s pre-Dakar plan.
Reliability will be everything in the Dakar event, where conditions will challenge the crucial communication between the multiple systems that comprise an electric drivetrain. Just completing the rally will be a remarkable achievement for the RS Q e-tron team. Like the Dakar Rally itself, the RS Q e-tron’s Morocco testing ran for two weeks. Audi will implement insights from both the tests and the event in its future production models.
“What we are trying to do has never been done before. This is the ultimate challenge for an electric drivetrain,” Roos concluded. “The insights we gained in Morocco are invaluable, but they also show us that we still have a lot to do before the Dakar Rally and there is not much time left.”
Find more information on the 2022 Dakar Rally here.