Audi's RS Q e-tron Hybrid Dakar Racer Is Gassed and Amped

Audi's RS Q e-tron Hybrid Dakar Racer Is Gassed and Amped

The best thing I saw in Italy was a bus driver shaking his fist at a flock of sheep blocking his way down a narrow road set against a hillside covered in wild lavender. He had a glorious mustache and an extensive vocabulary of what I assume were sheep-related curses. The second-best thing was the dashboard of Audi’s RS Q e-tron, which flashed my name across its digital display. I only saw it for a second, and then I drove through a stream and all I saw was water.

Audi brought me to Italy to get a taste of what its racing drivers experience piloting the RS Q e-tron in the two-week-long Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. Just replace nearly 6000 miles of skyscraper-high sand dunes, rocky desert terrain, and high-speed navigation with three laps around a small dirt track on a perfect spring day on a farm in Sardinia. Here, the biggest distractions were the cows, all of which were wearing cute little bells, like in the cartoons, and the farmers, who kept offering me homemade wine, even though it was 9 a.m. Emil Bergkvist, an actual Dakar co-driver, sat to the right of me in the RS Q e-tron’s passenger seat, so in some ways, it was sort of like driving in the real race.

The RS Q e-tron is a monster. It’s wider than a GMC Hummer EV—a hulking space capsule of carbon fiber with air vents large enough to crawl through and 37-inch BFGoodrich tires as knobby as an arthritic knuckle. Audi’s race machines always have an intimidating presence, from the flattened R18 Le Mans racer to the wide-bodied RS5 of the DTM series to the brand’s prior Formula E car, with its insectile folds and wings. The body of the RS Q e-tron has all the scoops and fat fenders—and a general sense of violence—of Audi’s past racers, but sits high on a double-wishbone suspension replete with Reiger gas shocks as thick as my thigh. It looks less like a race car than a weapon, a stealth bomber on wheels. It’s also one of only three built (done in a very short time and at a cost in the millions), so Audi was really hoping I, and the rest of the media members it brought out to drive this machine, would avoid running it into a cow while drunk on morning wine.

The densely packed development timeline of the RS Q e-tron saw the vehicle go from an ambitious idea at the beginning of 2020 to a dune-jumping, stage-winning racer in January 2022. This tight schedule forced the RS Q e-tron’s development team to rethink everything they knew about building race cars.

Audi’s racing history includes decades of developing all-wheel-drive vehicles for the purpose of driving in the dirt. The brand has also put in time competing in endurance racing. Less familiar to Audi, though, was off-road endurance racing, and in order to send teams to Dakar, it needed to build a completely new car.

The difficulty of the task was amplified by the brand’s desire to enter an electric vehicle. Audi knew its electric motors were up to the task courtesy of its now-defunct Formula E team, but it needed to find a way to ensure there was enough electricity on board to power these motors for the many miles that separate each stage of an off-road endurance race such as the Dakar Rally.

“If we’d wanted to make it to even the first fueling stop on battery power [alone], we would have required a trailer to haul it,” joked Benedikt Brunninger, technical project leader for the RS Q e-tron. When Audi started work on the RS Q e-tron project, the FIA still did not have rules in place that were applicable to the electric racer. By the time the car hit the starting line, its powertrain’s output was limited to 288 kilowatts (approximately 386 horsepower), and its onboard fuel capacity was capped at 300 liters (approximately 79 gallons).

Wait, fuel? Audi worked around the electric RS Q e-tron’s potential range issues by equipping it with an onboard generator, making it sort of the reverse of the brand’s hybrid Prototype-class Le Mans racers. While those cars used electric motors to give a power boost to the internal-combustion engine, the RS Q e-tron uses its front- and rear-axle-mounted motors to power the drive wheels and its turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four (cribbed from the RS5 DTM racer), which mates to a third electric motor, rigged to serve as a generator, to recharge its 52.0-kWh battery pack.

That makes it a series hybrid, an electric car with a surprising muffler in the rear, and a decidedly non-electric sound while recharging. The software that connects the multiple systems and keeps everything running and charging is so complex that several miles of wiring reside in the car. From an environmental standpoint, running a gas engine for hours to charge an electric motor is arguably no better than simply relying solely on an internal-combustion powertrain. However, the problem-solving done to bring the RS Q e-tron to life may ultimately lead to more efficient hybrid powertrains in the future.

Audi developed the RS Q e-tron’s DTM-sourced engine for endurance racing, which makes it well suited for the task of running at high revs for extended periods of time when the desert racer calls upon it for recharging purposes. With little need for the engine’s full powerband, the RS Q e-tron’s engineers tinkered with the engine by upping its compression ratio and lowering the turbo’s boost in order to improve fuel efficiency.

Fabian Titus, one of the combustion-engine development engineers for the car, told me there were initially some concerns about modifying the four-cylinder for the Dakar race. “Normally, if an engine is at high rpm, the car is moving fast, so you don’t worry about overheating,” he said. “Here, if it is charging in the dunes, it might be barely moving.”

There were also worries about getting enough air to the engine while also keeping out grit and sand. To address those issues, the four-cylinder gets a protective box, replete with fans for cooling.

Speaking of cooling, Saudi Arabia can drop to freezing at night, and there’s no time for engine-oil warmers or idling in the pits. To test what might happen if the engine fired up cold, the team took a retired DTM car, left it outside in the German winter, and started it up the next morning. “I was ready to run if it blew up,” said Titus, “but it was fine, it wasn’t a problem.”

The system can automatically kick on the engine at a predetermined battery charge level, but the driver can also start the four-cylinder at will, which Bergkvist did on our second lap around the track. He warned me it was a strange cognitive experience, going from the hums and clicks of the motors to the engine’s steady 5000 rpm no matter the position of the accelerator. It was especially off-putting during braking to hear no change in the roar and feel no less vibration from the middle of the car. It was also shockingly loud, though not loud enough to drown out my suggestion to Bergkvist of taking the jump in the middle of the course. “Ah, yes. No,” he said, pointing firmly toward the straightaway to the right of the hill.

Even without a sweet jump, I could tell the RS Q e-tron must be extremely capable in rough terrain. I was the last member of my media group to drive the car around the small track, and its previously smooth dirt surface was thoroughly plowed and furrowed from my colleague’s behind-the-wheel antics. Truth is, though, I didn’t even realize the course’s deteriorating condition until much later, when I ran it in a lightly race-prepped Audi Q5 and nearly had my teeth knocked out.

The RS Q e-tron bobbed over the ruts like a fishing float, the cabin suspended so far inside the big fenders that Bergkvist had to remind me a good one-third of the car was hanging out on either side of our viewpoint. It felt strange to aim for an apex so far from the edge of the track and realize your tires are still slightly up the berm.

Other than the engine note, everything in the RS Q e-tron is soft. The steering is as light as a ’73 Chrysler’s, which makes sense when you imagine driver Mattias Ekström spending full days digging this thing through sand dunes. It’s sort of fun once you get used to it: a little tip of the wheel, wait for the body to dip and recenter, get back on the accelerator. It’s a delicate process for such a brutish machine. During races, the RS Q e-tron offers a set amount of energy recuperation through braking, but for my drive, it was off—full coast and traditional brake pedal feel. The nose dove like a fishing eagle every time I stepped on the brake and bounced back up when I got back on the accelerator.

I was just getting the hang of letting the Audi rear up on the straights and surf through the turns when Bergkvist announced the cool-down lap. I let the body settle down into a quiet loaf and turned it back toward the pits.

Battery-electric vehicles are currently the darlings of automotive marketers, but the problems faced by the Audi team in preparing for Dakar are not so different from those today’s car shoppers must consider. What’s the range? Where can I charge? It’s possible the answer for consumers might be the same as that for racers. If gasoline-electric hybrids return to fashion, then Audi may just lead the charge.

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