Although I have only been able to spend a week in Saudi Arabia, traveling to the Dakar Rally hand in hand with my colleagues from Motorsport.com Spain has been one of the most intense and fun experiences of my entire career.
And not only because of the relationship with the drivers or the race itself (one of my favorites); for someone with a passion for driving, facing new experiences behind the wheel is always motivating. Testing the Audi Q5 Sportback, outfitted to follow the blitzing Dakar caravan, certainly qualifies.
This experience was incredibly new, too. My Q5 was an actual unit of the Audi Sport team, with a race number (2028), and had to comply with all of the regulations. In fact, I myself was in charge of verifying it before the start, in the bivouac of the King Abdullah stadium in Jeddah. No pressure, right?
Gallery: Audi Q5 Sportback Test At Dakar 2022
In order to handle every type of terrain Dakar can throw at a truck, the Q5 had a very specific preparation, which took a couple of months to complete. Mechanically, the Audi (a Q5 Sportback 45 TFSI Quattro Ultra S Tronic, if we're getting specific) was similar to what can be found at dealerships of the German brand, with a starting price of €70,080 (about $80,400). At base that means an SUV with a turbocharged gasoline engine, making 265 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of maximum torque.
That propulsion is accompanied by an all-wheel-drive system, managed 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 kilometers (according to the European test cycle) and more than acceptable performance: a 149-mph top speed and 6.1 seconds in the acceleration test from 0 to 62. This is a race, after all.
Tires are absolutely critical to the preparation of this unit. Here BFGoodrich supplied off-road-focused 255/55/R18 rubber, especially useful on all kinds of rough terrain. The tires can handle rockier sections at stock pressures, and of course get deflated to help chug through the frequent, and deep, sandy bits.
Continuing on the outside, on the roof rack, the Q5 Sportback has everything you'd need to face just about any terrain that we can find. Two roof boxes contain all kinds of vital materials: pressure gauge, gloves, wheel nuts, tools, an air compressor, a small shovel, slings to tow or be towed. Of course there's a spare wheel, recovery boards, a heavy-duty jack, and the always feared, and practical, large shovel.
All of these elements, by the way, are mandated by regulation for vehicles that follow the race.
In addition, two auxiliary lighting systems are installed on the roof rack itself: an LED bar at the front, with a very high lighting capacity, and a pair of LED spotlights at the rear. All of it is critical for undertaking repairs and carrying out work on the car in the middle of the inky desert night.
Changes to the stock Q5 are even more obvious in the passenger compartment, where a roll cage is an unmissable reminder of motorsport intentions. The cage just barely clears a set of excellent bucket seats, signed by Recaro, and finished with four-point safety harnesses.
In addition, on the right, the co-pilot has at hand two systems that must be connected at all times, and that are supported by a specific external GPS antenna.
On the one hand, we have the Iritrack, a device connected to race management, which allows the exact position of the vehicle to be sent and help to be requested if necessary. One needs only tap the "Rescue" button, both in the event of an accident and if any other participant is seen in trouble. In addition, every time the car is going to stop for more than 10 minutes, for whatever reason, the "Send" button must be pressed for 3 seconds. This notifies race management that the stop is scheduled, that everything is going well, and that I'm not, you know, on fire.
The second essential device is a navigational aid called Tripy. This is nothing less than the moving map tool, used to follow the serpentine route through the desert. This is no Waze or Google Maps, but an electronic route book, with which to follow the vignettes and directions provided by the organization.
The preparation of the car ends at the rear, where the seats have been removed and the roll cage is anchored. Just behind the bucket seats there is a container with water and a fire extinguisher, as well as a power outlet to charge whatever is necessary (from a mobile phone to the compressor on the wheels).
Tethered to the roll cage itself there is a second spare wheel and in the trunk, conveniently located, is another stash box to keep personal items close at hand. There's even a small refrigerator, in which to carry some food and cool drinks.
On the move, the first thing to note about the Q5 Sportback is its comfort. That may seem like a superfluous detail, no doubt, but when you have to face 500-mile sections, it becomes something you are extremely grateful for.
Of course, it is also a powerful and dynamic car (although somewhat hampered by the extra weight). But I quickly find it's really best to drive slowly and without mashing the accelerator, to keep from getting hopelessly stuck. Smooth and steady wins (or supports) the race.
And also because your Tripy is a tattletale who'll tell on you if you break the rules. Go faster than the prescribed pace more than three times and you will receive a warning from the race management. Continue to ignore the bosses, and you could earn yourself an honest to God sanction.
Comfortable on the infinite and straight Saudi highways, the Q5 also does not lose composure on tracks and broken sections. Here the Audi is bolstered by the off-road driving mode that buttons up the off-road experience, including an air suspension that can raise the height of the car by up to 45mm, when driving at low speed.
In these situations, the smooth delivery of engine torque from low revs and the extra centimeters of clearance are much appreciated. Even still, throughout long days, "caution" is our watchword. Because nobody likes to be left behind due to a mechanical breakdown... or having to change a wheel out in these rugged conditions.
Once off the rocks and into the sand, everything changes. It is best to adjust the tire pressures, double down on caution and, above all, completely ignore what the local drivers do.
First, because they are in their natural habitat; second, because their cars are usually prepared; and third, because the weight works against the Q5. The Audi is already substantial at just under 4,000 pounds when empty; add in the needed equipment and supplies for making this journey, and you're talking about one heavy SUV.
Across the smoothest stretches of sand, this kind of driving is quite similar to driving on snow: which is to say, pretty darn loose and a whole lot of fun. After only a few minutes, I found myself connecting up corners in a kind of constant slide, to take advantage of inertia, in much the same way you might attack a Scandinavian road covered in snow.
However, when the sand deepens, everything changes and the fun ends; at least partially. In that case, you have to make the most of inertia, never let the car drop in speed and, above all, never stop. Something that, without knowing what you will find behind the next dune, is not always easy. Dakar rewards the brave.
In the end, we received a great number of experiences common to this epic race. Climbing, crawling, sliding, and using recovery boards to help other competitors get back on the road. (Never forget the first rule of the Dakar: Help your partner.) Somehow, through all of it, my Q5 stayed unstuck for the entire race. Of course there's always next year.
Audi Q5 Sportback S line 45 TFSI quattro-ultra S tronic