The story of modern-day Audi motorsport began when it drove its quattro into the World Rally Championship series back in 1981. Rallying therefore runs deep at Audi, but the Four Rings has still never raced in the toughest of them all: Dakar. That’s set to change in 2022, as Audi plans a Dakar debut that will see it become the first automaker to race a vehicle with an alternative powertrain, a car that looks like a green but absolutely mean snarling beast from under the covers.
When it comes to electrified racing, Audi has one of the world’s most impressive resumes, having achieved a Le Mans hat trick between 2012 and ’14 with the R18 e-tron quattro, before moving on to great success in the all-electric Formula E series. It’s now preparing to end factory participation in Formula E following the 2021 season, turning its attention to Dakar and other racing pursuits.
“We are taking the next step in electrified motorsport by facing the most extreme conditions,” says Markus Duesmann, chairman of Audi’s Board of Management. “The many technical freedoms offered by the Dakar Rally provide a perfect test laboratory for us in this respect.”
Since Audi will step onto the Dakar battlefield in 2022, not at next month’s 2021 event, its rally car is still in the works and hidden below cloth. The single teaser picture released this week hints at a properly sleek and muscular rally rig that might just give the Peugeot 3008DKR Maxi a run for its money as the coolest Dakar car of modern times. Huge tires, high arches, razor-sharp headlights, a sloped Sportback-like roofline topped by a wicked air scoop … what’s not to love?
Audi explains that its Dakar prototype will get drive motivation from a powerful electric drive wired up to a high-voltage battery pack. To give the car the legs it needs to trek across thousands of kilometers of hot, brutal desert, Audi will use a high-efficiency TFSI engine as a generator to supply range-boosting power.
Audi doesn’t specify whether its hybridized electric drive will power all four wheels. We presume it’ll want to highlight its rich “quattro” history, but rear-wheel-drive cars have been making a strong case for themselves of late, capturing the past four out of five Dakar Car titles (the 2019-winning Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux has AWD). Most recently, at the 2020 event, the RWD X-Raid Mini John Cooper Works Buggy grabbed the first and third place spots in the Cars category, while the best-placing 4×4 Mini JCW Rally followed in sixth.
Audi’s focus on Dakar will make cross-country rally racing a cornerstone of the brand’s “Vorsprung durch Teknik” philosophy as it transitions its production lineup from “quattro” to “e-tron quattro.” Audi intends to use the experience and insight gained in rallying to refine electric powertrain technology for its production cars. By 2025, the company expects up to 40 percent of global sales to come from electrified models.
Audi isn’t the only one determined to see alternative-powertrain technology break through in Dakar. Acciona became the first team to successfully run an all-electric car back in 2017, and several teams plan to tackle the event with hydrogen-powered vehicles in 2023, according to an announcement from Dakar today. One such team, the formidable pairing of five-time winner Cyril Despres and extreme adventurer Mike Horn, will use this year’s rally to collect scientific data to aid in the construction of its 2023 hydrogen rig.
Beyond Dakar, Audi is also planning a big return to the World Endurance Championship series it exited in 2016 to pursue Formula E. That means it’ll be back behind the wheel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race it was dominating less than a decade ago.
“We are evaluating other possible fields of activity for us in international motorsport,” says Julius Seebach, managing director of Audi Sport. “In doing so, we have our customers’ wishes in mind as much as the company’s future strategy, which is clearly focused on electrification and carbon-neutral mobility. This is why we are intensively preparing to enter the new sports prototype category LMDh with its highlight races, the Daytona 24 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours.”