What’s the best car to drive across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Why, A McLaren 12C of course. We cover more than 2000 kilometres looking for motoring nirvana.[Not a valid template]
On paper, it didn’t look that far. On a map, Saudi Arabia looks relatively mid-sized, nestled next to the enormous expanse of the African mainland. But now that I’m here, and I’m mentally calculating distances and driving times, I fear I may have underestimated things somewhat.
We – that’s me, www.crankandpiston.com colleague Phil McGovern, a film crew and a few special guests – are about to start a fairly epic drive across what, to many, is a very mysterious country. I’ve never been to Saudi before – my one previous attempt to visit was stymied by the lengthy visa approval process – so what I know is largely based on stories from other people and from the media. Not all of which is entirely complimentary. Tales of religious austerity and deliberate shunning of the western world don’t immediately appeal to those of us raised on McDonalds and freedom of speech.
But on the other hand, there’s something appealing about such a mysterious place, a place that’s rarely high on people’s must-visit list. Saudi is off-the beaten track, a relative enigma, a place I want to find out more about. Is it really the fun-free dustbowl as portrayed by so many?
Just in case it is, I’ve brought my own fun. Cinemas and live music are scarce, so I’ve gone instead for some home-grown British entertainment in the form of the McLaren 12C. Several of them, to be exact. We’re flying into Riyadh, the nation’s capital, where we’ll pick up the cars and travel in convoy – perhaps at a decent turn of speed – across the country. Our plan over the next week is to head from Riyadh to Buraydah, then on past Medina to the coastal port city of Yanbu. From there, we’ll make our way down the coast to Jeddah, regroup, and then pass by the holy city of Mecca to search for what we hope will be the crowning glory of our trip – the twisting, rising mountain road to Taif. From the pictures we’ve seen, it should be one of the greatest roads we’ve ever seen.
But first things first. After a short flight from Dubai we touch down in Riyadh and meet up with our host and McLaren owner, Faisal bin Laden. He’s a long-term friend of www.crankandpiston.com and a devoted fan of speed, being an instrumental part of the Saudi Falcons race team and a racing driver in his spare time. And as a Saudi, he knows the country well.
After a night in Riyadh to prepare ourselves for the mission ahead, we gently ease into the trip by picking up the cars from the local dealer and having a quick tour around town. Our weapons will be a 12C coupe in trademark McLaren orange, and two Spiders – one white, one grey. Faisal joins us in his own 12C, and we’ve also got a support truck with cameramen Tom, John and Asif, as well as Tom from McLaren and his mechanic Matt.
A tour of the impressively tall Faisaliyah Tower culminates in a trip to the top and a glimpse at the scale of Saudi Arabia, a country of more than 2 million square kilometres. Our first day travel alone – which looks barely more than a short jaunt on the map – will be almost 400 kilometres.
And so off we go. I’m opting for the orange car, mostly because it’s orange. I’m driven several 12Cs before, so I’m relatively familiar with it, but it’s still an occasion to look at. In Riyadh, a dusty city filled with Toyota Corollas and assorted Americana, the cavalcade of British horsepower is quite a site, and I have a good view of it from low down in the bucket seat, through the vast bubble of the windscreen. As supercars go, the 12C is relatively friendly for long journeys, which is why we figured it would be a good choice for this trip. It has cruise control, cup holders and Bluetooth phone integration, all of which will come in useful over the next few days. Crucially, McLaren engineers have cleverly separated out body roll and ride quality, meaning the 12C can corner like a sports car but doesn’t deliver spine-shattering jolts over the merest of speed bumps. Instead, it purrs over the terrain, through afternoon traffic and out onto the open road. Although I’m packing 616bhp through the rear wheels, courtesy of the mid-mounted 3.8-litre twin-turbo engine, it’s so far as easy to drive as a hatchback. Only the growl that peeks from the exhaust when I flex the throttle gives a hint as to what will come.
We take a quick stop at the Reem Circuit a half-hour drive outside of Riyadh, intending to have a thrash around, but by the time we arrive it’s dark. We settle instead for a pootle around the adjacent kart track, in the McLarens, lit only by the headlights. It’s hardly an epic workout, but as each of us gains confidence and bravado, we end up pushing the 12Cs harder. The tight turns show off the handling well, even at these low speeds, and there’s the occasional flicking out of back ends. But with a long drive still ahead of us, we don’t mess around for too long.
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