The Middle East is home to some of the world’s best roads, many of which most of us have never experienced. Bassam Kronfli selflessly volunteers to try one of them using not one, but four Lamborghini Huracans, so we don’t have to…
Apparently the Jebel Akhdar Anantara is the highest five-star hotel in the GCC and, judging by the spectacular sunrise I wake up to after a night spent there, I have no reason to doubt that. I’m full of anticipation for the day ahead, as after hearing whispers for some time that the Jebel Akhdar road was the best in the Gulf, I’m about to find out for myself.
Adding to the excitement are the four Lamborghini Huracans sat in the car park, gleaming in the Omani sunlight. Looking like a set of Italian Skittles in typically lurid colours, every variant in the model range is represented bar the basic four-wheel drive coupe and the hardcore Performante that has yet to make it to the region. The Gulf’s best road driven hard in some of the world’s finest supercars? I will have had worse days, I’m sure of it.
As the weather is pretty close to perfect and I’m about to drive an apparently epic ribbon of tarmac, I make a beeline for the fluorescent yellow convertible rear-wheel drive LP580-2. I pull open its conventional door, drop awkwardly into the seat and immediately have a moment of panic when I realise that the seat is all the way back. My legs are splayed open, my back is totally straight and my knees are at chest level – not exactly an ideal seating position for the 600km drive ahead.
The route is the kind Italian supercars are seemingly made for. Down Jebel Akhdar (which translates to the Green Mountain in Arabic, due to its surprisingly lush scenery) and across the Omani Desert towards Al Ain, then down to Dubai and on to the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, where we will watch a round of the one-make series Lamborghini Super Trofeo race. Considering the Huracan’s aspirations of being a more ‘everyday’ Lamborghini, it’s surprising how little leg and headroom there is, although the latter problem is solved easily enough by lowering the roof.
I’ve already had a teasing taste of the road ahead – yesterday on the way up, albeit from the passenger seat of a Land Cruiser. There is an access gate at the bottom of the mountain and, bizarrely, the police that stand guard will only permit you to go up if you are in a four-wheel drive vehicle, as they deem it to be unsafe in a conventional car. I would like to have been there for the negotiations when Lamborghini was convincing them it was ok for the Huracan to be allowed up, arguing that it’s four-wheel drive. Obviously the rule was intended for SUVs rather than wedge-shaped supercars and I’m feeling a bit rebellious as I pull out driving the rear-wheel drive variant.
We leave in convoy with a Touareg camera car in the lead, to capture our first moments before the focus changes from documenting the start of our journey to attacking the Middle East’s best road. The problem is that in front of the VW is a Nissan Pathfinder police car, which seems intent on chaperoning us to the 40kph(!) speed limit. Surely he doesn’t expect us to drive the whole way down at that pedestrian speed? After a few minutes at a crawling pace I’m beginning to get anxious – I haven’t come all this way to dawdle along and decide that I’m going to risk it. I pull out to overtake, at first cruising by at only a few kph quicker than the police, gingerly squeezing the throttle and short shifting my way gradually up to about 100kph. I’m looking in my rear-view mirror, waiting for a flashing light from the cops, but when I realise that’s not happening I start to pick up the pace and, once I’m a few corners ahead, I start to genuinely push on.
The road ahead is a dream – an almost endless downhill series of perfectly paved switchbacks, hairpins and sweepers that takes us from the nearly 2,000 metre altitude of our hotel, all the way down to sea level. The scenery is made up of craggy limestone peaks reminiscent of the Hajar mountains (it is part of the same range that stretches to Hatta) but far greener as the altitude means it often rains.
I’m now really on it, as the nuisance police car is a long way behind. I remain fully aware, though, that they can hear the Lambo’s V10 screaming all the way to its lofty 8000rpm redline, every whip crack gear change (I’m in Corsa mode, naturally) and every pop and crackle from the exhaust as I come off the throttle ricocheting off the concrete barriers and amplified across the canyon below.
I’m not a big fan of the LP610-4, but this rear-wheel drive version is definitely a step forward. While it is 30bhp down in the power stakes, crucially on a road like this it’s lighter and the steering is a lot clearer, as it’s uncorrupted by not needing to power the front wheels. Great steering helps on roads such as this, as placing the nose accurately is fairly crucial as the Huracan devours apex after apex.
Unfortunately Lamborghini has yet to perfect the feel of its ceramic brakes, which are either on or off, making it tricky to apply subtle brake pressures when all you want is to scrub off a bit of speed, or to help tie down the nose for quicker direction changes. There’s no doubting their power though, and there are no hints of fade despite the beating they are taking on the way down this highly challenging road. Surprisingly I’m unable to get the rear of the LP580-2 to break traction, despite the electronics being switched off, but that’s probably more to do with how grippy the brand new asphalt is than the inherent balance of the car itself. Considering that this is the first time I’ve driven this road and that most of the corners are blind I can still carry some shocking turns of speed downhill, such is the sure footedness and predictability of this Huracan.
I get to the bottom of the mountain and all I want to do is turn around and go back up. Instead I have to park up and wait for the rest of the convoy to reappear, as I have no idea which way we are heading. A good ten minutes later the others appear and, unbelievably, they are still behind the police escort! I’m now worried that the police are going to arrest me and I start fabricating excuses in my head as to why I had to drive at five times the speed limits. Thankfully all I get is a dirty look as they drive off, their babysitting duties now over. I’m also getting envious looks from my less brave colleagues who’ve missed out on one of the region’s great drives due to their unwillingness to overtake the men in blue (or beige, in this case). What a waste.
With the highlight of the drive now behind us we cruise through the tiny streets of the ancient city of Nizwa, renowned for centuries as the ‘Pearl of Islam’. It is littered with ancient forts and charming markets. I’d love to explore this intriguing town a bit more but we have a long drive ahead of us and have to keep moving. Soon we are out on the open road and making brisk progress across hundreds of kilometres of desert dual carriageway.
Not for the final time today, we stop and switch cars. I’m now in a silver convertible LP610-4 and, as the weather is still cool, the top remains down and for the next hour or so of the journey we settle into a comfortable triple digit cruise. The arrow straight nature of the road ahead makes it difficult to come to any conclusions about the pros and cons of four-wheel propulsion versus rear-wheel drive, the only thing apparent being that the steering feels a bit more cloudy in the dash four.
Left in Strada mode the Huracan’s ride is surprisingly supple and the big V10 purrs along in relative anonymity, only making its presence felt when you pull back on the left paddle-shifter a couple of times in succession. I have plenty of time to take in the barren scenery around me, which is how I would imagine the surface of Mars to look. The rugged terrain is an endless spectrum of brown and beige, the distinct lack of colour interrupted occasionally by dry, green shrubbery and unhealthy looking trees. Cacti and tumbleweed wouldn’t be out of place here.
In an attempt to spice up what has now become a rather monotonous drive, I look for gaps between the speed cameras that dot the road every few kilometres, and see if I can test the validity of Lamborghini’s 328kph top speed claims. Now back in Corsa mode, the acceleration is vivid and is accompanied by the epic soundtrack of ten angry cylinders behind my head and a hurricane (pardon the pun) of wind that swirls through the open cockpit along with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ being played at full volume. The speedo needle rapidly rotates in a clockwise direction and, while I don’t quite get to full wack, I now have no reason to doubt Lamborghini’s figures.
At these speeds the once smooth surface feels bumpy and even the slightest curve feels like a proper corner. It certainly makes you focus, but I can now see the next Omani radar rapidly homing into view, so I slam on the anchors to get back down to legal speeds. The rear end gets light as the nose dips dramatically, the violent stopping forces accompanied by the slightest of jinks sideways. It never feels like it’s going to get away from me but it definitely gets my attention.
The midday sun is now high in the sky and it feels like a good time to switch to the only coupe in our quartet, which is also a rear-wheel drive model. As the solid red door clunks shut, it is immediately apparent that there is a lot more room inside the closed roof variant than the convertible. The seats now have enough room to move back into a comfortable position, which is very welcome as I was starting to struggle in the tight confines of the convertible.
After seemingly endless straight road I can see a series of roundabouts ahead and, in an attempt to entertain myself I nearly wreck a quarter-of-a-million dollars worth of Sant Agata’s finest, as I’m caught out by just how slippery the smooth surface is. I turn in and the nose pushes wide. For a moment I think I’m about to spear off the road but, mercifully, the front tyres find some traction and the rear rotates behind me. I apply a quarter turn of lock on the steering, squeeze the throttle and the LP580-2 settles into a lovely four wheel drift through the roundabout and all the way back out onto the straight ahead. Disaster averted, but it is also a display of the Huracan’s playful side, which is a welcome respite from the Audi-like demeanour I had experienced up till now.
Speaking of Audi, we all know that the R8 and Huracan are very closely related under their sheet metal but, unlike the Gallardo before it, it feels like this relationship has compromised both cars adversely. While attempting to become more of a supercar, the current R8 has lost many of the GT qualities that made its predecessor such a wonderful machine. Conversely, the Huracan’s objective of becoming more of an everyday supercar has gone a step too far in my opinion. The line between the two has become increasingly blurred, rather than both cars having their own distinctive personalities.
Back to the drive and we are now at the Mezyad border post, where we will cross from Oman into Al Ain. The border guards seem bemused by the sight of four Lamborghinis in convoy and, after they finish inspecting our documentation and searching the Huracan’s small boot (they mistakenly go for the rear bonnet first, only to find an engine instead of storage space) the camera phones come out before they send us on our way.
We head out of the city and down onto the Al Ain – Dubai highway. Before the iconic Dubai skyline starts to appear, though, we turn off onto the Al Maha Forest road. I had no idea this road existed, but it’s a bit of a gem. Winding through beautiful desert scenery all the way till it joins the Sheikh Rashid highway it is one of the few remaining roads that are almost free of radars, giving me the chance to stretch the Huracan’s substantially long legs.
Before we know it we’re at Yas Island and the gleaming F1 circuit, where we’re just in time to watch a grid full of Super Trofeo race cars trundle out of the pit lane. Lamborghini promotes this as the fastest one-make series on the planet and the racing is predictably fast and furious.
It turns out to be the perfect end to an epic road trip, which started on arguably the region’s best road and ended at one of its best racetracks. It’s been a complete immersion into the Huracan world. My initial impressions of Lamborghini’s ‘entry level’ model had been rather lukewarm the first time I drove it but, over the past 600km, I have grown to understand it a lot more, forming a closer bond with it in the process.
It’s a car of many characters and, while it probably lags a bit behind Ferrari’s 488 and McLaren’s 720S in outright ability and in the broadness of its performance spectrum, it is not far behind those rivals. It’s not hard to fall for the Huracan’s mix of flamboyant looks, usability and dramatic performance. It turns out that first impressions aren’t always correct, after all.