How Audi’s Dakar win shows its F1 ambitions shouldn’t be underestimated

OPINION: Audi’s Dakar Rally triumph with Carlos Sainz Sr may have felt inevitable given all the premier class components involved, but it is easy to forget the German squad was under huge pressure and an outsider for the ultimate prize. Here’s how Audi turned around its fortunes and what it means for its upcoming Formula 1 foray

Audi has faced heavy backlash over the way its motorsport division has been managed over the last few years. The decision to phase out all its sportscar racing programmes and go all-in on Formula 1 has aggrieved even the most loyal fans of the German marque.

Even former teams and drivers haven’t shied away from levying criticism at some board-level changes that they feel have damaged the very brand and sporting image of Audi.

Since Audi has enjoyed immense success in sportscar and touring car racing, critics argue that pulling out of the DTM, LMDh (just weeks before the car was supposed to begin testing) and factory GT3 competition goes against the very history on which the Audi Sport brand has been built on.

Formula 1 may be in rude health and witnessing unprecedented popularity, but Audi has never really been associated with single-seater racing. After all, beyond a brief period in the 1930s in its Auto Union guise, Audi has never competed in grand prix racing. So the decision to put all its weight behind its upcoming project has been puzzling for a number of onlookers.

Another argument that the naysayers have is that Audi is forgoing the prospects of outright victories in legendary races such as Le Mans 24 Hours and Daytona 24 Hours only to trundle in the midfield of a 20-car F1 grid. F1 has always been a hard nut to crack for big car makers; with the exception of Mercedes and Renault, no mainstream manufacturer has lifted the constructors’ title since the world championship was established in 1950.

The likes of Toyota, Honda, BMW and Jaguar have all tried their luck building in the pinnacle of motorsport, only to realise that their corporate structures didn’t allow them to outgun professional and slick race teams.

Even those who have witnessed Audi score 13 victories at the Circuit de la Sarthe are sceptical about how it can enter F1 as a new manufacturer in 2026 and upend the status quo. Success in F1 just doesn’t come easy.

However, while it is only natural to question if a big corporation like Audi can adapt to the fast-paced world of grand prix racing, one only needs to look at the way it has turned around its Dakar Rally programme as proof that it can end the triopoly of Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari.

It has been an open secret that Audi was planning to pull the plug on its last remaining factory effort after the 2024 season. This left a real possibility that it was going to return empty-handed from Dakar after three years of trying if it had failed to win the 46th running of the event this January. One can only imagine the questions that would have been asked if Audi were going to enter F1 in 2026 after its last factory programme had been a failure. That simply wouldn’t have been acceptable for a brand with the history and prestige of Audi, not after three years in competition.

Just look at fellow Volkswagen Group brand Porsche, which is now doubling down on its Formula E team in 2024 after missing out on the championship yet again last year. It has extended its commitment to the series until the end of the Gen3 cycle (having previously been the only manufacturer to not guarantee that) and obliged driver Antonio Felix da Costa to give up on a Hypercar drive in WEC so he could focus on improving his qualifying performances in Formula E. Porsche, an even bigger giant of the sportscar racing world, will not give up before it finally wins the title with its factory team…

Audi is no different and it has done everything in its capacity to win the biggest prize in cross-country rallying.

When it entered Dakar for the first time in 2022, its maiden outing was considered largely a success. Mattias Ekstrom’s ninth-place finish with the radical RS Q e-tron, built using technology it pioneered in Formula E and DTM, was a proof of concept and showed that it was possible to be competitive against its conventionally-fuelled counterparts. With some fine-tuning and upgrades, it should have been possible for the brand with four rings to build on its debut result.

However, its second appearance in Dakar in 2023 was nothing short of a failure. Instead of making a major leap after a year of running the car, Audi took a step backwards in both performance and reliability, allowing Toyota to run away with victory in one of the most one-sided contests in the rally-raid’s recent history. Both Carlos Sainz Sr and Stephane Peterhansel were forced to retire from the event, and Ekstrom in the sole-surviving Audi could only salvage a 14th-place finish.

This was not the outcome Audi had wanted and its engineers returned to the drawing board, reworking the RS Q e-tron that had underperformed in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. In what was effectively a top-to-bottom overhaul, almost all components of the car were revised, from chassis, transmission and bodywork to the software that helped manage the complex electric and combustion powertrains.

Significant weight-saving measures were undertaken and the car was more robust than ever to withstand the impact of anything it hit in the vastness of the desert. If the car broke down, drivers would have been able to repair it faster thanks to the work that went into reducing maintenance times.

Still, the public sentiment was not in favour of Audi. Prodrive was expected to be the new king of Dakar after hiring Nasser Al-Attiyah to partner Sebastien Loeb, with Toyota likely to emerge as its chief rival despite having a new and relatively inexperienced line-up. Audi was likely going to have to battle to be the best of the rest, provided it could get the reliability sorted.

As it turned out, Dakar 2024 was nothing as expected and rivals – particularly Al-Attiyah – paid the price of underestimating the Ingolstadt-based marque. From the very beginning, it was clear that the homework Audi had done was paying off, with Ekstrom winning the Prologue and Peterhansel staking his claim on Stage 2. When the rivals began to falter one after the other in the first week, Sainz put in a series of impressive performances in his RS Q e-tron, retaking the lead in the 48-hour Stage 6 after Overdrive’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi rolled his customer Toyota Hilux.

When nine-time World Rally champion Loeb was emerging as a serious threat at the beginning of the second week, the Audi trio united to assist Sainz’s bid for overall victory. On Stage 9, for instance, Ekstrom opened the road for the Spaniard while Peterhansel acted as a rear-gunner, ensuring he was covered from both sides. During the tricky penultimate test that was laid full of big rocks, both Ekstrom and Peterhansel were again available at short notice for assistance, ensuring he had someone to call in in case of punctures and bigger reliability dramas.

The Prodrive operation, which consisted of multiple independent teams, lacked this kind of unity. Its star 2024 signing Al-Attiyah withdrew from the rally after a series of reliability dramas, ironically after claiming that Audi “would go home” after three days in Dakar.

This left Loeb on his own and he needed to keep his foot on the throttle, having incurred a significant deficit in the first week due to punctures and other issues. So when he heavily damaged the suspension of his car on the penultimate day after hitting a rock, he was sidelined for more than an hour until another Hunter arrived at that point of the stage. Even that was a lucky moment for the Frenchman, who was prepared to exit the stage and restart a day later after calling in his assistance crews.

At Audi, this scenario was never going to happen, as both Peterhansel and Ekstrom were happy to take on a supporting role once it was clear that they were no longer in the running. The duo also scored three individual stage wins between themselves – Sainz didn’t win any – showing the car was not only consistent but also had the outright pace.

So when the Dakar 2024 finally finished after nearly 8000km of racing over two weeks, Sainz and Audi were crowned champions with a winning margin of more than one hour over the Overdrive Toyota of Guillaume de Mevius, with Loeb ending up third.

Much of the immediate attention was stolen by Sainz, who became the oldest winner of Dakar at the age of 61 and added a fourth victory to its tally. But just as important was a historic triumph for Audi, which showed that it is possible to win the biggest prize in cross-country rallying with alternative forms of propulsion systems.

That means when it formally announces its exit from Dakar, there would hardly be anyone complaining about what was a relatively short programme compared to its stint in WEC, DTM or even Formula E. It won Dakar fair and square against rivals like Prodrive and Toyota, and also added to its legacy in rallying, four decades after Stig Blomqvist won the 1974 WRC title at the wheel of an Audi Quattro.

With the Dakar rally out of the way, Audi can now shift its focus back towards F1. The German manufacturer is devoting a lot of resources to its new project that will run in association with Sauber, with the current Stake F1 team morphing into the works Audi team, hiring key staff to bring the employee count more in line with the top teams. To get a new engine programme running from the ground up, Audi is also building new facilities within its Competence Centre Motorsport in Neuberg which was already the home for its defunct programmes in Dakar, FE and LMP1.

In Sauber, Audi has a partner team that understands the ins and outs of F1 and a factory that has all the modern equipment to work on chassis and aero. Sauber has been run as a full works team before and the erstwhile BMW Sauber operation will provide both lessons and new learnings for Audi as it prepares to make its entry into the high-profile world of F1.

It won’t be an easy game though, and even Sauber’s technical director James Key has admitted that it won’t be until 2027 that the “final product” is ready. So if Audi isn’t competitive straight out of the gates in 2026, don’t draw any conclusions. The German marque will eventually find its way in what is its most ambitious racing project ever.

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