Eco wars: the battle to be Dakar's first 'green' winner

Rally News

Biofuel, electric or hydrogen – which will power Dakar's first 'green' winner in the rally's fierce new eco war?

New Audi lead

Audi's 'electric prototype' has been the biggest name in the race to be green, but it has strong competition


The fight for Dakar victory has been a decades-long macho contest for more power, more speed and more grip – not to mention reliability.

But the sand is shifting at the world’s toughest rally, and this year’s event saw the beginnings of an eco war, as competitors duke it out to be greener than green – and try to win the world’s toughest rally while they’re at it too, of course.

The planet-saving tech on the Saudi Arabian course saw big-name backers sending biofuel, electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles racing across the desert.

And as the dust flew, so did the jibes in the bivouac, as team bosses promoted their claims to be running the clean racers of the future.

“We wanted to have our powertrain concept which is adaptable to almost every use in motorsport” Stefan Dreyer – Audi

Audi has big racing plans for the electric powertrain in its RS Q e-tron prototype, but the petrol generator it uses was an easy target for the disparaging Prodrive outfit, which is relying on sustainable biofuels to power its BRX Hunter.

Sniffy about both efforts were the hydrogen runners, staking the claim that the technology will “take over”.

In reality, all of the solutions are likely to play their part in a new, cleaner Dakar, with all car and truck manufacturers required to be racing with ultra-low emission vehicles (we’re still waiting for the definition) by 2026.

And any of them could power the first green Dakar winner: an accolade still to be claimed after this year’s event was won by the twin-turbo V6 petrol-powered Toyota Dakar Hilux.


Audi has impressed with its electric prototype, but some competitors aren’t show sure as to its green credentials


Audi’s “electric prototype”, the formidable RS Q e-tron, is the competitive poster child for German manufacturer’s intentions to go fully electric with it road cars, with its internal combustion engine development stopping beyond 2026.

Slightly ironically, it isn’t a fully electric car. Propelled by two electric motor-generator units from its Formula E (MGUs) for each axle, the e-tron doesn’t have enough range to get it all the way through those power-sapping stages.

“At no point does Audi mention this year’s Dakar push as being about green energy”

“We wanted to have our powertrain concept which is adaptable to almost every use case in motorsport,” says Audi Sport’s head of development Stefan Dreyer. “Which can do some distance racing, which is highest performance but also efficient. And this is why we came up with this solution.”

That solution is a 2-litre, four cylinder TFSI DTM engine (with a 300-litre fuel tank), which purrs away between 4,500 and 6,00rpm, making sure the lithium-ion battery stays charged – doing so through another MGU. The zero emissions element of an electric car is therefore lost.

The e-tron is visually breathtaking and has shown stunning pace, winning four stages, with Audi’s team boss Sven Quandt saying “The concept works.” But what concept? That a battery can be charged with an ICU engine? The team will want to transfer to a fully electric car in time for Dakar’s requirement that all cars and trucks meet those ultra-low emissions standards, but how feasible will this be at the unforgiving, power-hungry Dakar?

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It’s intriguing to note that at no point does Audi mention anything in the marketing for this year’s Dakar push as being about green energy, sustainability or helping the environment, instead vaguely stating to the “Future is an attitude” in its marketing slogans. What it of course wants to do in the future is sell road cars, and the marque can see which way the desert wind is blowing as to how many of them will be EVs. That is after all its main aim of being in Dakar – getting the public to buy more cars, not necessarily save the world. It allows the consumer to make the connection.

The punchiest opposition to Audi is the Prodrive team. Famous for, amongst other wildly successful motor sport projects, taking Colin McRae to the 1995 WRC title in a Subaru Impreza, its BRX Hunter, piloted by Sébastien Loeb, is a conventional ICU monster powered by a 3.5-litre Ford GT V6.

This is where it diverges from the usual though. Instead of being powered by conventional juice, it instead uses EcoPower, a concoction formulated by bespoke fuel supplier Coryton.

David Lapworth, Prodrive’s Technical director, broke it down for Motor Sport at Dakar.

“The main ingredient for our fuel – 90% – is agricultural waste,” he says. “The other 10% is fossil fuel, which is part of the blend required by the FIA. But the target is that 10% will come down and down and will be 0% in a year or two.”

The saving the car will make is considerable, particularly when compared to the Audi.

“A normal petrol car would produce 36 tonnes of CO2 across Dakar,” Lapworth explains. “We’re producing about six [per car]. The Audi is a little more efficient than us, probably produces about 30 tonnes. Our emissions are about 80% down on what we would produce with normal petrol.”


Prodrive believes its biofuel is currently in line with Dakar’s ultra-low emission aim


Key to Prodrive’s eco push is the fact the CO2 which comes out of the Hunter’s tailpipe is already in the atmosphere previously, hence the reduction in emissions.

The fuel is not overly expensive, coming in at roughly £4 a litre. Lapworth can also see how it would be immediately beneficial to the ‘real world’.

“Take your average electric car,” he says. “They reckon it’s about 70,000 miles before you offset the amount of CO2 that’s embedded in its manufacturer because it’s so energy intensive to create lithium-ion batteries – it takes a lot of mining.

“And even then it’s not as green as you think because we’re still getting electricity from coal-fired power stations.

“I preach a bit because I’m the chairman of the Motorsport UK Sustainability Committee, but it frustrates me as an engineer that people don’t know that what is really going on.

“Sustainable fuels is one of the quickest wins — there are millions of cars that are on the roads around the world that already exist that need sustainable fuels, and you can see its potential use in aeroplanes, high performance cars, motor sport etc.”

You can probably guess Lapworth’s answer when he was asked which car was more environmentally friendly out of the Prodrive and the Audi, whilst further grumbles throughout the bivouac can be heard about the dispensations given to Audi by the ACO to its ‘electric’ car viable.

Prodrive isn’t the only firm in contention to be greenest of them all. Two other outfits, Gaussin and Green Corp Connection (GCK), are aiming to enter hydrogen-powered vehicles in Dakar in ’23 and ’24 respectively. Both are understandably bullish about the sustainability of their energy source.

Gaussin creates emissions-free and smart vehicles for port and airport logistics. Seeing its chance with Dakar’s new direction, the company has created a truck using hydrogen power.

“The idea was to develop a hydrogen racing truck in order to show we have the know-how and skills to develop a [road-going] one to go on the public road,” Gaussin’s Chief Technical Officer Simon Klein told Motor Sport.


Gaussin is aiming to enter the Truck category from 2023 with a hydrogen-powered truck


Unfortunately the truck has similar problems to Audi currently, in that the desert is unsuitable for topping up on the energy its vehicle currently needs.

“We’re running in experimental category, because we don’t have enough autonomy to do the whole stage,” Klein explains. “The truck can accept 350 bars of pressure for hydrogen, but we cannot find this hydrogen under this pressure in Saudi Arabia – only 160.”

The truck has two electric MGUs producing 300kW each. 14 tanks hold 80kg of hydrogen between them, with four fuel cells to convert the hydrogen into electricity. It has an additional battery to provide the extra power and torque needed when hauling itself over the dunes.

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“Right now we’re collecting data in preparation for next year,” explains Klein. “The goal is to reduce the weight of the truck – we’re 12.5 tonnes whilst the opposition’s are around 8.5-9.

“We also need to increase the pressure from 350 bar to 700 in order to increase the autonomy, and work on the logistical things regarding the hydrogen. The idea is to compress the hydrogen in the bivouac during the night and then refuel in the morning at 700 and bar before the stage.”

Klein is no doubt as to where he sees the Gaussin truck in the green energy race: “Audi has less emissions but it’s not zero emissions. Our truck is zero emission.”

In the slightly more nimble car category, former stuntman and rallycross driver Guerlain Chicherit is also going down the hydrogen route.

At this year’s Dakar, his GCK company unveiled the e-Blast H2, a hydrogen-powered protoype car which will compete from 2024.

Its fuel cell will run on 700-bar hydrogen, with four tanks delivering 200kW of energy. The engine, attached to the rear axle, will ultimately produce 400bhp in line with ACO rules.


GCK will enter the Car category with its hydrogen prototype from 2024


“Motor sport has to show an example and I feel strongly about this, and we have to be as green as possible, as quickly as possible,” Chicherit told DirtFish late last year.

“It can’t happen overnight, that’s impossible but we need to have real, strong intentions to make it happen, because if you don’t have these intentions, it’ll never happen.

“Biofuel is the first step, the intermediate technology, and then in two- or three-years’ time, hydrogen will take over.”

GCK will also be involved in creating an autonomous bivouac for Dakar by 2024, which will be powered entirely by solar energy. 630 panels will supply 1.2 megawatts of power per day, with GCK also provided the storage facility for the green energy.

So, the race for renewables at Dakar is on. But who will be first to win with a totally ‘green’ vehicle? All eyes on 2024 and beyond.