The Dakar Rally is one of the most gruelling motorsport events in the world, and tends to feature some pretty epic cars. Here’s the three main contenders vying for victory in 2023.

Photos: Toyota, Audi Sport, Amaury Sport Organisation (A.S.O)

Admittedly, off-road builds aren’t usually our thing here at Fast Car, but in the case of the Dakar Rally, the ‘cars’ involved – if we can even call them that – are simply too fun to turn a blind eye to.

Fans of the famous cross-country race will know that drivers and riders can enter all sorts of vehicles into the Dakar Rally’s multitude of different classes. Bikes, buggies, quads – even full-size trucks! However, the stars of the show tend to be the cars. These often involve the best styling, best tech and best drivers, and 2023 is no different…

A Toyota Hilux at the 2023 Dakar Rally

Toyota GR DKR Hilux T1+

Dakar Rally Pedigree

If you broaden your motorsport horizons beyond the closed paddock of F1, you’ll quickly begin to realise that Toyota are on a bit of a role.

In the World Endurance Championship, the Japanese marque secured a 1-2 finish in the points standings last year (albeit with minimal competition), following a season that included outright victory at Le Mans with their GR010 Hypercar. Toyota’s 2022 success weren’t just restricted to tarmac though, either. With its GR Yaris-based Rally1 car, Toyota swept up the World Rally Championship honours too. So, given that run of form, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that Toyota also enter this year’s Dakar event as the reigning champions.

Back in January 2022, it was Qatari driver Nasser Al-Attiyah who claimed victory, and he’s returned to fly the flag for Toyota once more with a new and improved ride.

Not Your Average Hilux

Upon first glance, it’s easy to tell that this is no ordinary Toyota Hilux. In fact, aside from the silhouette, there’s little that this wild pick-up shares with its roadgoing namesake. The engine, for instance, is based on one of Toyota’s production blocks – but not one that you’ll find in the humble Hilux. Instead, this Dakar special runs a modified version of the V35A twin-turbo petrol V6, found in the Land Cruiser SUV. In stock form, the V35A outputs 410PS, but for the Dakar, sporting regulations mean that Toyota has had to detune it to around 360PS. Still, that’s plenty to be playing with, especially with 457lb ft of torque on tap.

During the winter off-season, the Hilux has undergone a number of small evolutions. The differential, for example, is tougher than before. As for the reinforced suspension, the pick-up’s double wishbone set-up has an impressive 350mm of travel built into it, while the six-speed sequential gearbox has also had its shifting traits tweaked.

All in all, this proven package just seems to be getting better, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Al-Attiyah on the top step of the podium once again.

The spaceship-like Audi RS Q e-tron.

Audi RS Q e-tron E2

Could an Electric Car Win the Dakar Rally?

Toyota won’t have it all their own way though. This year, Audi Sport are arguably the best placed to challenge them for the Dakar crown, despite opting for a very different sort of vehicle.

Whereas a traditional petrol V6 powers Toyota’s Hilux, the Audi’s RS Q e-tron has been designed to take on the desert dunes with battery power alone… almost (more on that in a moment). As a result, what we have is a full-on tech war at the top of the Dakar tree.

So, how exactly does this SUV-spaceship lovechild work? Well, it’s propelled along by two Formula E-sourced electric motors, however, it’s not exactly easy to find a charging station in the middle of the desert. So, to get around that issue, the RS Q e-tron charges itself. Sounds like wizardry, right? The sort of thing that could revolutionise electric transportation for the better. Well, not quite.

Audi’s Sneaky Self Charging System

See, tucked away in the back of this neatly packaged electric vehicle is a 2.0-litre TFSI DTM petrol engine. Nope, we’re not kidding. It’s worth pointing out though that the thoroughbred four-cylinder never actually moves the car along. Instead, it’s simply there to power an onboard generator, which then charges the electric propulsion motors. Sure, there’s plenty of scope to poke fun at a solution like this, but regardless of how you view it, you’ve at least got to admit that it’s a pretty cool bit of kit.

What’s more, the E2 iteration of the RS Q e-tron promises to be 15% more aerodynamic and ‘several dozen kilograms lighter’ than the original concept. So, while the FIA won’t allow any top speed gains, that should at least mean that those electric motors are under a bit less strain over the course of the rally.

Former world rally champion (and father of Ferrari’s Spanish F1 driver) Carlos Sainz Snr will be leading Audi’s assault on the Dakar this year, accompanied by veteran Dakar champ Stéphane Peterhansel and former DTM ace Mattias Ekström.

Prodrive are taking on the Dakar Rally again with the Hunter T1+

Prodrive Hunter T1+

Up against the might of Toyota and Audi, it’d be easy to assume that a small company like Prodrive might an underdog. However, let’s not forget who Prodrive are. Sure, it may be a small company tucked away in the British midlands, but Prodrive was the driving force behind Subaru’s WRC dynasty. When it comes to off-road racing, these guys know what they’re doing.

This time though, they aren’t operating under the guise of another manufacturer. Instead, the Prodrive Hunter is a self-titled album, designed to prove exactly what Prodrive stands for. It’s quite an attractive-looking thing too. Sure the front end won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but we’re a fan of its high-riding coupe-esque proportions. And, maybe it’s just us, but the Hunter’s rear lights seem rather reminiscent of some current Jaguar models.

Underneath its brawny exterior, the Prodrive Hunter’s underpinnings largely reflect those of the Toyota Hilux mentioned above, given the FIA governing body’s strict rules and regulations. Nevertheless, the two designs are very much each marque’s own concepts and constructs. Plus, while the Hunter also makes use of a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6, the one you’ll find in its engine bay is a modified Ford Ecoboost motor.

On paper then, the Prodrive package is a formidable one, especially when you throw Sébastien Loeb – 9x WRC champion – into the mix as well.

Ultimately, what we’re saying is that, for the first time in a little while, the prestigious Dakar rally has some serious competition within its premier category. So, if you find yourself with a spare few minutes over the next week or two, check out the highlights of this year’s event over at the official Dakar YouTube channel.