A month ago, the German car Audi brand took part to the Dakar, the very famous desert race, with an electric car. This week I had the opportunity to discuss about this project with two members of the team : Virginia Brusch and Benedikt Brunninger. During a bit more than twenty minutes we talked about this project, about how hard it is to race at the Dakar and we also talked about the future of motorsport depending on new energies like electric or hydrogen cars. Enjoy the interview !

Hello Virginia and Benedikt, first of all thanks for accepting to answer our questions ! Before we start can you introduce yourself so the people can understand your role at Audi ?

Virginia Brusch : My name is Virginia Brusch and I’m the spokeperson at Audi Sport communication department for the Dakar project.

Benedikt Brunninger : My name is Benedikt Brunninger and I’m the technical project leader for the RS-Q eTron.

When did the project started ? When did Audi decided to race at the Dakar with an electric car ?

BB : I would say in November 2020.

Quite a long time ago so…

BB : Not really a long time for us especially for developing such a car.

For those who are not passionate about motorsport can you, without going into the details, explain and describe this RS-Q eTron ?

BB : The RS-Q eTron is a four wheel driven rally car for cross-country rallys, so rallys going completely off the road. It has one electric engine in the front and one engine in the rear which give the energy to a high-voltage battery and as you can imagine, you would never survive with a fully electric car with just a battery, running through the desert for up to 800 kilometers. We also need energy on board and this energy is delivered by an energy converter. So the energy converter consist in a four cylinders petrol engine combined with an electric engine which is used as a generator to feed the high voltage battery with new energy.

Do you think that in a few years you’ll be able to race with a fully electric car ?

BB : No, never. We thought about it at the beginning and we did some studies. It was clear that to reach the first refuel point on a stage, which is around the 250 kilometers of stage, we would need four times the actual eTron battery so it’s much too heavy for this car and it would not be working.

Audi has a rich racing history, an history full of innovations. The four wheel drive technology in Group B back in the 80s’, the diesel and hybrid engines at the 24H of Le Mans, so everytime Audi is coming to a new championship it looks like you’re bringing a new technology. It seems that if Audi was coming to the Dakar, it was obvious that you guys would brought something innovative, am I right ?

BB : Yeah it’s right. You know our slogan “Vorsprung Durch Technik” means getting an advantage by technology and it’s always our goal to show this also works in racing. So a challenge like the Dakar which is such a complex challenge fits perfect for us.

The Dakar was one of the last worldwide race that never really innovated in terms of technology so did you felt like pioneers being the only team racing electric cars ?

BB : Yes this is exactly the right word : pioneers. And it’s not only because it’s a new car with a complex technology but also being, let’s say part of defining the future of this sport so this is a project we are all really proud of.

Audi has been developing electric road cars for a while now and you also already an experience electric racing with the Formula E so was it an advantage for you to have a certain experience in terms of hybrid and electric race cars ?

BB : Oh yes it was a big one. Competing the Formula E generated let’s say a huge knowledge base. Without the high voltage and low voltage engineering we have, we would have never been able to build our car in such a short time. The next thing is that we also had a lot of parts in stock that could be use because basically we use the same motor as the one from the Formula E car that we took from the last Formula E season. These are self-developed parts so we know exactly how they work and how they react, for sure not in the same conditions as the Dakar but this base is a good starting point.

The Dakar is probably one of the hardest race in the world and we know that in the past, big brands failed to win it. Knowing that, did you changed your approach while developing the car and the team or did you kept the same approach you have in every race ?

BB : It’s a good question… We used to get the same question when we talked about creating the car. Everything was new and we had no experience at all. So normally you would start on a base of datas collected during the year of racing with all the cars on all the circuits but this one is so different because there is no circuit you’re just driving somewhere in the desert and it’s so different from everything else we did before. Luckily we had a good partner, Q-Motorsport with a lot of experience racing at the Dakar for many years this helped us a lot to understand what it means to developping a car for the rally Dakar.

Talking about partners, we know that Audi is part of the Volkswagen group and Volkswagen had some decent success at the Dakar in the early 2000s’, so were you able to learn from that and share some technologies ?

BB : Hard to say so. Actually we have two colleagues who were racing with Volkswagen, they are at Audi now and they were part of the project. They had some good inputs for us especially when it comes to surviving two weeks in the desert. They always said to us : “Keep in my mind to sleep whenever you can, eat something whenever you can and take a shower whenever you can.” so I guess these were good advices for us. As the Volkswagen stopped all of their motorsport activities at the end of 2020 and because they raced at the Dakar so many years ago it was too different in terms of technology.

The driver line-up is quite interesting with first of all Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz, 17 Dakar wins between both, they’re obviously good elements to have in your team when you race at the Dakar, so in what way their experience helped to develop the car ?

BB : Yeah for sure it’s a huge benefit to have them in our team. These two guys together combined decades full of experience racing at the Dakar so they helped us a lot getting the car at such a high performance level in its first season. It start by designing the cockpit and also doing the setup of the car for example on the suspension, especially Carlos who feels the car a lot so he is always modifying the details of his setup and you don’t need any datas for that so it was really a big help.

The third driver and he’s the one I wanted to focus on is Mattias Ekström. He’s been working with Audi for a long time and he recently took part to the “Extreme E” championship. His experience from the Extreme E and the brand were for sure good elements but what kind of different experience did he brought compare to Peterhansel and Sainz, knowing that it was his first time at the Dakar ?

BB : For me personally Mattias is always a phenomenom. He’s able to drive completely different cars with different concepts and adapting his style on time to this new conditions so this is a skill which makes him essential for us. He’s combining all the experience he has racing the Extreme E but also the ETCC Seat Cupra which is also electric but completely different and as you say he knows Audi for such a long time, he knows how we work, he knows all the process and he helped us a lot to make this challenge happened.

He actually realized a good race for his first time at the Dakar so did he surprised the team with having good results on his first time racing in the desert, especially since he’s mainly a race track driver ?

BB : Yeah we were really surprised and I would say he was really surprised on his first time with such a car at the Dakar and he was the best Audi at the end. For me personally Mattias is the future, our future in the Dakar.

Unfortunately you weren’t able to win the race due to some mechanical issues during the first stages but the good point is that you still managed to win 4 stages and you had no apparent issues with the electric engine so what was the objective for this first race and what is the general feeling after the race ?

BB : To be honest after the short time developing and testing the car we said that we would be happy to manage to get to the finish line with all the cars. As you said, to be able to win more than one stage and bring all three cars home made us really proud for sure and we are really happy that the most complex part of the car did a great job and it was such a small problem let’s say, which we already understood and how we can solve it for the next year.

Now that the race is over, among all the challenges that are part of the Dakar, what has been the hardest one ?

BB : Oh, hard to say. I would say that building the most complex car we ever had at Audi Sport, for the most complex race we ever competed in, and this in almost one year, this was the hardest.

So what is the objective and the program this year for this RS-Q eTron ? In what races are you going to compete in and do you think you can win races before the 2023 Dakar ?

BB : To win races is always our goal and we hope that after this first try at the Dakar we’ll be able to fight for the victory. The next race will be the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in the beginning of March but the overall planning right now is not finished.

So you’re still not sure to fully take part into the World Rally Raid Championship ?

BB : Not yet.

Besides Audi other teams brought new energies to the Dakar. We know that a team was racing with an hydrogen truck and we also know that more teams are willing to compete with electric or hydrogen cars in the upcoming years so do you think that with Audi you kind of opened a door for the future of the Dakar ?

BB : Let’s say we were very happy to see all the efforts this year with this hydrogen truck and we would be very happy to have competitors in the T1-U category because for the moment we are still the only one. We also know that the organisers and the FIA is putting a lot of effort in transforming the Dakar to a more sustainable race for the future and our agreement was a kind of confirmation that they are on the right base let’s say.

Do you think that because a big brand like Audi manages to bring a competitive electric car in a desert race may have acelerated the electric transition in the world of motorsport ?

BB : For sure it’s always helpful when brands like Audi is doing such projects but the motorsport world already understood that its future needs to be more sustainable, they are already a lot of electric series in differents categories, the Formula E, the rally-cross, the ETCC and I guess a lot more to come.

In a close future, are we going to see the results of this technology and the experience learned at the Dakar in the Audi electric road cars ?

BB : This would be the best if we could do it but we need to be realistic. All the parts from the RS-Q eTron are fully developed for a racing application and they are really no parts from the RS-Q eTron that you can put in a normal eTron car. But for sure the RS-Q eTron is for us like a test laboratory to increase our knowledge in electric and hybrid cars for our road cars.

Audi has already and won so many races across its history, was the Dakar the last missing part from Audi’s racing history ?

BB : Never say last but let’s say one of the biggest challenge we ever faced. The Dakar is one of the biggest adventure and probably the last adventure and every passionate racer wants to have this title in his pocket.

It’s only the beginning of your adventure at the Dakar but are you already thinking about the next challenge for Audi and what could it be ?

BB : To be honest our next challenge is still winning the Dakar.

It looks like that this year and the past year has been very important for the world of motorsport with a lot of new electric championships or a lot of changes such as the hybrid cars in WRC, so do you think that we’re currently in the most important phase for the future of motorsport ?

BB : Yeah I would say so. As mentionned before, I completely agree and a lot of things are changing for sure, and personally I’m really proud to participate in this migration of motorsport.

Last question and this one is especially for our American audience. We know that stunt and rally driver Ken Block is working closely with Audi, is there a chance that we see him driving the RS-Q eTron in a race this year or the upcoming years ?

BB : We already saw him driving the RS-Q eTron in Austria for the Ice GP. He told us he had a lot of fun and he was really excited to drive this car so I guess he would like to do it in a race. At the moment we are really happy with our driver line-up but we’ll see what the future brings so never say no !

If you want to know more about the Dakar or the Audi RS-Q eTron you can check Audi’s website or Audi’s social networks as well as their drivers : Stéphane Peterhansel, Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekström.

Personally I’d like to thank Virginia Brusch and Benedikt Brunninger for their time but also for talking with passion about this project. Thank you for reading us and see you on a next article or on any of our social networks !