Although I only managed to spend one week in Saudi Arabia, traveling to the Dakar Rally along with my colleagues from Motorsport.com in Spain was one of the most intense and fun experiences of my entire career.
And not just because of the relationship with the drivers or the race itself (one of my favorites); For someone with a passion for driving, having new experiences behind the wheel is always motivating. The test of the Audi Q5 Sportback, equipped to follow the impressive Dakar Caravan, certainly qualifies.
This experience was incredibly new, too. My Q5 was an actual Audi Sport team unit, with race number (2028), and it had to comply with all regulations. In fact, I was personally in charge of validating this before the start, in the temporary building at King Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah. No pressure, right?
In order to handle every type of terrain a Dakar could throw at a truck, the Q5 had a very specific setup, which took two months to complete. Mechanically, the Audi (Q5 Sportback 45 TFSI Quattro Ultra S Tronic, if we want to be specific) was similar to what can be found at the German brand’s dealerships, with a starting price of €70,080 (about $80,400). At the base, that means an SUV with a turbocharged gasoline engine, producing 265 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of maximum torque.
This drive is accompanied by an all-wheel drive system, driven by a multi-disc clutch, and a seven-speed DSG transmission.
With all this, officially, it earns an average consumption of 8.7 liters per 100 km (according to the European test cycle) and more than acceptable performance: a top speed of 149 mph and 6.1 seconds in the 0-62 acceleration test. This is a race after everything.
Tires are very important for setting up this unit. Here BFGoodrich supplied the 255/55/R18 off-road concentrate rubber, which is especially useful on all kinds of rough terrain. The tires can handle rocky sections when stock pressures, and of course are deflated to help cut through frequent, deep sandpits.
Continuing out, on the roof rack, the Q5 Sportback has everything you need to take on any terrain we can find. Two roof bins hold all kinds of vital items: pressure gauge, gloves, wheel nuts, tools, air compressor, small shovel, and levers for towing or towing. Of course there’s a spare wheel, recovery boards, a heavy-duty winch, and a big shovel that’s practical and always intimidating.
By the way, all of these items are imposed by the regulations for vehicles that follow a race.
In addition, two additional lighting systems are installed on the roof rack itself: an LED strip in the front, with a very high luminous capacity, and a pair of LED spotlights in the back. All this is necessary to carry out repairs and work on the car in the middle of a dark desert night.
Changes to the stock Q5 are more visible in the passenger compartment, where the roll cage is an unmissable reminder of motorsport intentions. The cage barely removes a set of premium bucket seats, signed by Recaro, and finished with four-point seat belts.
Additionally, on the right, the co-pilot has two systems on hand that must be connected at all times, and they are powered by a specific external GPS antenna.
On the other hand, we have the Iritrack, a device connected to the race management, which allows sending the exact location of the car and asking for help if necessary. One only needs to click on the “rescue” button, whether in the event of an accident or if you see any other participant in trouble. In addition, each time the car will stop for more than 10 minutes, for whatever reason, the “Send” button must be pressed for 3 seconds. This informs the race management that the stop is scheduled, that everything is going well, and that I am not on fire.
The second primary device is a navigational aid called Tripy. This is nothing short of a moving map tool, used to follow a serpentine path through the desert. This is not Waze or Google Maps, but an electronic route book, with which to follow the posters and directions provided by the organization.
The rear end of the car is finished, the seats are removed and the roll cage is installed. Immediately behind the bucket seats there is a container with water and a fire extinguisher, as well as a power outlet for charging everything necessary (from a mobile phone to a compressor on wheels).
A second spare wheel is attached to the roll cage itself, and in the luggage compartment there is another storage bin for keeping personal items close at hand. There is even a small fridge to hold some cold foods and drinks.
On the go, the first thing to note about the Q5 Sportback is its comfort. This may seem like a redundant detail, no doubt, but when you have to contend with sections of 500 miles, it becomes something to be very grateful for.
Of course, it is also a powerful and dynamic car (although somewhat hampered by the extra weight). But I quickly found it was really best to drive slowly and without smashing the throttle, to avoid hopelessly tripping. Smooth and steady wins (or backing up) the race.
Also because your Tripy is a rich guy who will tell you if you break the rules. Go faster than the set speed more than three times and you will receive a warning from the race management. Keep ignoring superiors, and you may earn yourself an honest reward before God.
Comfortable on endless and straight Saudi highways, the Q5 also does not lose its cool on broken tracks and sections. Here Audi is supported by an off-road driving mode that increases the off-road driving experience, including an air suspension that can raise the vehicle’s height by up to 45 mm, when driving at low speeds.
In these cases, the smooth delivery of engine torque from the lower revs and the extra centimeters of clearance is greatly appreciated. Even so, throughout the long days, “Caution” is our motto. Because no one likes being left behind due to a mechanical failure…or having to change a wheel in these rough conditions.
Once you get out of the rocks into the sand, everything changes. It is better to adjust the tire pressure, double caution, and above all, Completely ignore what local drivers do.
First, because they are in their natural environment; Secondly, because their cars are usually prepared; And third, because the weight works against the Q5. A really big Audi at under 4,000 pounds when empty; Add the equipment and supplies needed to make the trip, and you’re talking about a heavy SUV.
Across the smoothest stretches of sand, this type of driving is just like driving on ice: that is to say, pretty darn and a lot of fun. After just a few minutes, I found myself tying corners in a kind of continuous glide, to take advantage of inertia, the same way you might attack a Nordic road covered in snow.
However, when the sand gets deeper, everything changes and the fun ends; At least partially. In this case, you have to make the most of the inertia, never let the car slow down and, above all, never stop. Something, without knowing what you will find behind the next dunes, is not always easy. Dakar rewards the brave.
In the end, we had quite a few shared experiences in this epic race. Climb, crawl, slide and use recovery boards to help other competitors get back on the road. (Never forget the first rule in the Dakar: help your partner.) Somehow, through it all, my Q5 stayed untied throughout the race. Of course there is always next year.
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