5 minutes with... Maris Saukans, driver of the first electric vehicle to conquer the gruelling Dakar Rally

Saukans tells us about the difficulties of life on the torturous rally, how his car handled the terrain and why EVs will soon be a common sight on racing grids across the world.

By John Silcox on February 4, 2012 12:10 PM

Maris Saukans is rally team Latvia race leader and driver of the OSCar eO, the first electric vehicle ever to complete the Dakar Rally.

As reported earlier, the extended range off-roader survived the gruelling 5,600-mile race across the roughest terrain in South America, which proved too much for more than a few traditionally powered 4x4s.

Not only did OSCar eO finish, but it crossed the line a very respectable 77th in the final classification, and so paved a bright new future for EVs in motorsport.

Speaking to TheChargingPoint.com, Saukans tells us about the difficulties of life on the rally, how his car handled the terrain and why EVs will soon be a common sight on racing grids across the world.

TCP: What does this achievement mean to you? Is it what you expected?

MS: It was a huge achievement for all of us, the whole eO team and the others who took part in the project. We think we have successfully reached our goal: to build an electric rally raid car and successfully complete the Dakar rally. I’d like to hope that this achievement will be a good motivation not only for us, but also for others.

One of the quieter stages of the rally

TCP: What do you think it could do for electric cars as a whole?

MS: Motorsport has always been the most powerful driving force for the automotive industry and our achievement is an excellent example. We have gathered invaluable experience and information how various components, like batteries supplied by one of our major supporters – Winston Batteries, behave in the harshest environment during Dakar rally. I hope this experience will be further used to improve electric vehicle technologies.

TCP: How did training in Latvia compare to the real thing? Did you devise any special tests?

MS: The Oscar eO was built in Latvia in about eight-and-a-half months. Unfortunately, we don’t have any deserts or mountains that can be compared to what we saw during the Dakar, so it wasn't possible to simulate anything even close to race conditions during tests. On other hand – we have participated in Dakar rally a number of times before, so we used that experience combined with extensive theoretical knowledge. Risk was an important factor, starting from day one until the very end.

The OSCar eO had to deal with some of the toughest terrain there is

TCP: What is your rally history?

MS: I’ve been in motorsport for the last 10 years, participating in various championships, but my main goal has always been the Dakar challenge. This was our 7th Dakar race.

TCP: What was your biggest worry?

MS: Thanks to Andris Dambis, constructor of Oscar eO and all engineers of Team eO who did a tremendous job, we didn't run into any serious trouble with mechanical or electric components. Bearing in mind the lack of extensive testing, at first we were worried about how our car would perform in the Dakar, but as days passed, we gained more and more confidence that the car would not let us down.

A bit of a slope...

The biggest worry was completing each leg in time, as the vehicle construction limited us to about 120kph max speed on the special stages.

TCP: Were there any near-misses during the race? If so please tell us more about them.

MS: It is characteristic of the Dakar race that anything can happen to anybody at any point of the race. In our case, we almost had to quit the race when we had to take a waypoint high up on a huge sand dune. It was particularly hard because we were one of the last cars to arrive there so the terrain was already very deteriorated by the previous cars. Instead of climbing the dune, we made the right decision to take a detour through a narrow path between the ocean and impassable mountains, reaching the waypoint from another side.

It wasn't all dry and sandy

TCP: What were the extra challenges, on top of an already gruelling race, that applied uniquely to driving an electric car?

MS: In addition to staying within allowed time limits, it was also challenging to get used to OSCar eO control systems, that are different compared to those used in regular cars. There was a whole range of electric parameters to monitor. Managing the energy flows and maintaining the battery packs at the desired state of charge was also very complex task at times. Not to fall asleep during the last four stages of the race was probably the hardest thing though!

TCP: How did you cope with tiredness?

MS: This is a question I can’t really answer, as until this race, I hadn’t spent that much time without sleep. All I would say is that it seems that a man doesn’t know his limits, if he has a goal that he wants to achieve.

The sand dunes are not at all forgiving

TCP: What was the craziest thing that happened to you?

MS: Our system voltage is 600 VDC but the accessories and controls run on a 12 VDC auxiliary circuit, which is fitted with two alternators. One night we were stuck in the desert with both of them inoperative which made continuing nearly impossible. It took three hours and a bit of a miracle for Kaspars [the co-opilot] and Andris [engineer] to fix one of them, but luckily we did and were able to continue the race.

TCP: Who’s your rallying hero?

MS: OSC’s director of motorsport, Andris Dambis. Not only in this rally, but also elsewhere, even in everyday life. I’m very thankful that my destiny gave me the chance to learn from such a wise man.

That's no ordinary route map

TCP: Dust is apparently a terrible problem, how did you overcome this?

MS: You can’t overcome dust – it’s everywhere. So the only thing you can do is to take dust into account and be prepared.

TCP: Heat must also be a big problem... how was crossing the Atacama desert? How did it affect the vehicle?

MS: Everybody was affected by heat, not only us – during the Dakar race several of Argentina’s heat records were broken. But the Atacama desert in itself wasn’t a problem for the OSCar eO – we took advantage of the torque characteristics of the electric motor and displayed how competitive in desert conditions it is.

In fact all the electric components and their cooling worked perfectly. We were relieved to see the motor, inverters and Winston Battery batteries stayed within the working temperature range when ambient temperatures were in excess of 140 Farenheit.

On the first two days we had some problems with overheating of the range extender ICE coolant. We modified some air ducting in the area and never saw the problem again.

TCP: Would you have preferred to do the traditional Dakar route? If so why?

MS: Yes, I’d have prefered the traditional Dakar route, as it offers much more diverse environment compared to South America. Africa also presents more navigation challenges.

TCP: How much did the project cost?

MS: The electric OSCar eO costs 1.5 times more than its petrol counterpart OSCar O3 which was seen alongside the electric car during the rally as a support car.

TCP: One of our readers wanted to know what sort of fuel economy you got during the rally…

MS: OSCar eO averaged 12mpg during the Dakar rally which is a significant improvement over the 5mpg of the petrol OSCar O3.

Maris (sitting) with Andris Dambis after the finish line. The exhaustion is as apparent as the elation

TCP: Were any external charging points used during the rally?

MS: No, no external charging devices were used during the rally. The range extender with 60 kW nominal output proved to be scaled correctly, so that all the charging could be done during the special stages and road sections.

TCP: What would you change about the experience if you could do it again?

MS: First and most important of all – I would not change the decision to participate. Speaking about priorities, I’d say we could have paid more attention to max speed. Otherwise, everything else we did was right and if I could do it again, I’d do it exactly the same way.

TCP: What is the next project for your electric rally team?

MS: eO is not only a rally raid car, it’s an enterprise with its own goals reaching much further. We will continue our work to develop the eO rally car, as well as aim to transfer our experience to the electric car industry by designing, producing or assembling components used in street electric cars.

The guys celebrate their historic achievement at the finish line

Speaking about sports, we are planning to participate in the Monte-Carlo Rally for Alternative Energy Vehicles in March and the Silk Way rally-raid in Russia later this year.

TCP: Can you see a time when all rally cars will be electrically powered?

MS: If I had to answer this five years ago, I’d have said that it’s clearly impossible. Today, we’ve proved the opposite. However, I think the time when electrically powered cars are able to compete side-by-side with regular rally raid cars is not that close by, but I’m sure there will be more and more electrically powered cars appearing during the next years.

TCP: Are there plans to make an all-electric rally car, without range extender?

MS: We’ll just have to wait and see...

OSCar eO photo slideshow:

Visit the OSCar eO website