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Audi in Saudi: Rally Adventure

Charlie Cooksey checks into Saudi Arabia for the Dakar Rally with Audi Middle East

Recently, I was delighted to be invited by Audi Middle East to the Dakar Rally being held in Saudi Arabia. The Dakar Rally (formerly known as the “Paris–Dakar Rally”) is the annual, and greatest ever, off-road motor endurance event. Most events since the inception in 1978 were staged from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal, but due to security threats in Mauritania, which led to the cancellation of the 2008 rally, events from 2009 to 2019 were held in South America. 

From 2020 to 2022 the rally has been held in Saudi Arabia. From 2023, the rally is expected to take place entirely in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The rally is open to amateur and professional entries, amateurs typically making up about eighty percent of the participants.

This was my first ever visit to Saudi Arabia and I was excited to see the country, after having lived in the Middle East for 5 years, and visiting for over 20 years. I was especially excited over the last few years to visit Saudi with its huge tourism development, the growth and buzz of Riyadh, and all the huge other events happening there. The energy and vibe of Saudi Arabia is infectious, I really felt a connection with the country, the people and the city of Riyadh.

We would leave the comforts of our 5-star hotel in Riyadh before sunrise each morning, setting off in the biting winter’s cold, for the drive into the desert. Upon sunrise the air would warm and I’d be astounded by the absolute beauty of nature; the desert sand was light orange, and the sky a perfect blue. It made me feel calm.

We journalists were based inside a comfortable desert majlis that offered shade and refreshments. When the time came, we would leave to stand close to the designated route so as to get a better look as the competitors, in their specially customized desert machines, would race past us. The terrain that the competitors traverse is much tougher than that used in conventional rallying, and the vehicles, including motorcycles, are specially designed off-roaders rather than being modified on-road vehicles. The distances of each stage covered varied from short distances up to 800–900 kilometres per day.

Unlike most of the competing vehicles, which were loud with petrol guzzling engines, the Audi RS Q e-tron was so much quieter and can best be described as sounding like an angry wind or RC car. Being a guest of Audi Middle East, you could say I was bias to Audi on this trip. Each time I saw the RS Q e-tron hurtling past myself and the other journalists and media would cheer it on, all watching it from behind our iPhone screens.

The Audi RS Q e-tron is the most sophisticated vehicle in terms of technology that Audi Sport has ever deployed in racing, and its prototype RS Q e-tron made history as the first EV to win a stage during the Dakar Rally. This marked the 40th stage win for legendary driver Carlos Sainz, as well as a first for an electric prototype in the top cars division with Audi using technology the brand developed during its racing period in Formula E.

At the end of each day, I would visit the ‘Bivouac’ and have the opportunity to witness Audi’s dedicated engineers servicing their vehicles and preparing them for the next day’s racing. It was a great opportunity to meet the Audi team, ask them questions and learn about the technicalities of the prototype.

Whilst being way out in the desert – I also took the chance to go dune-bashing in a special desert equipped Audi Q5, in which I ended up getting stuck in the sand and needing a tow truck to pull me out. A very similar situation happened to me a few years earlier in contrasting conditions – in the Artic when, also driving an Audi (RS Q3), I got myself stuck in a snow drift. For clarity I should point out that in both cases this happened because of my own driving and not due to any fault of the Audis I was driving!

Charlie Cooksey stuck in snow on a frozen lake in Swedish Lapland, in the RS Q3

“Progress has taken on a new shape with the Audi RS Q e-tron at the Dakar Rally marking a special time in our motorsport history. The Dakar Rally is the toughest race in the world, and despite early obstacles, we are well on course to continue electrifying the desert of Saudi Arabia, sparking a new era of racing that will spearhead our motorsport commitments in the future. I congratulate our teams braving the Arabian desert and wish them continued success,”

Carsten Bender, Managing Director at Audi Middle East.


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