McLaren 12C. Saudi Arabia. The Hidden Kingdom

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The jaunt from Yanbu to Jeddah is barely a hop in comparison to our mammoth schlep from Buraydah – just 300km, which we dispatch in barely three hours. However, we’re struggling a bit. Both Phil and I have picked up really sore backs from the McLaren seats which don’t seem to offer nearly enough lumbar support for longer journeys. It’s annoying, as in all other aspects so far, the 12Cs haven’t put a foot wrong, bar a cracked windscreen from an errant stone on the motorway. But by the time we get the Jeddah, we’re looking for a nice flat, hard floor to lie down on for a bit. Thankfully there’s little else on the agenda that day, save for a trip down to see the Jeddah McLaren showroom, and hang out at Faisal’s house eating crepes and watching his very large television. We spend our time relaxing, and recuperating for the final push.

Early the next day we meet again at the McLaren showroom, and we’re joined by several 12C customers that have heard about our little escapade and want to join in. We’re relishing the day’s activities. Faisal’s Grandfather was one of Saudi’s most revered construction figureheads, and was responsible for building the Taif road across terrain that many said couldn’t be conquered. It was, and although the road is officially closed, Faisal has arranged for it to be opened, just for us. No oncoming traffic, no police, no limits.

First, we have to get there. Mecca lies between us and it, and once again it’s off limit for us non-Muslims, so we have to skirt around to the south of it, over what looked on Google Maps like an entertaining route. Unfortunately, it turns out to be made of tarmac that has rippled up something chronic, presumably from the constant churn of trucks that ferry too and fro, avoiding the city. At some points the ridges are so bad that the painful scrape of asphalt on undertray has me wincing, and we progress slowly.

But after 90 minutes or so, we reach a fuel station. Everyone fills up with regular fuel – there’s no Super available – and we begin to climb slowly up what looks to be a very promising stretch of road. It’s two lanes wide on each side, with a barrier in the middle, cut into craggy rocks. Faisal is leading us and so far, he’s not exactly pushing on.

Soon, we find out why. Large barriers block the road, and a couple of bored-looking policemen turn around the few motorists that don’t have the memo that it’s closed. Luckily for us, a few choice words from Faisal’s right-hand man, and the gates open up, and the convoy of at least ten 12Cs snakes through. Game. On.

We decide to do a recce run first, to make sure there are no hidden hairpins that might catch us out, so the first run is a cruise. For the first three kilometres, it’s all that we hoped for and more. The Taif road rises majestically towards the blue skies overhead, the craggy mountains looming on one side, while on the other the Kingdom stretches into the distance on a plateau. On the 12C’s vertical sat nav screen, the road continues like a lengthy scribble for kilometre after kilometres. This looks like being a seriously good day.

But then the dreams all come crashing down. We round a corner, and there’s a huge digger parked in the middle of the road. And beyond that is… well, what was a road. It’s undergoing major renovation and large chunks of it are now little more than mud. In addition, there’s a huge boulder the size of a small bungalow blocking the route. Even if we get the trucks to move, there’s no way through.

After a bit of impotent standing around and looking at the situation, we decide to make the best of it. We’ve covered the best part of 2000 kilometres and won’t be denied some thrashing. So we all trundle back down the hill, and take turns in making runs up. After watching a particularly stylish blue car disappear ahead of me, I wait 30 seconds and chase after him. All the 12Cs settings are flicked to super-duper, which gives me maximum attack from throttle, steering and suspension. The results are mindblowing, as I knew they would be. If it weren’t for the changes in engine tone as I pull the gear paddles, I’d swear that the twin-blown V8 behind me just kept going up and up, such is the continuous push it gives the Macca’s carbon tub. The noise isn’t as evocative as the 12C’s chief rival, the 458 Italia, but as it bounces off the mountains ahead of me it still sounds the absolute business. It’s entirely possible to grab the 12C by the scruff of the neck and properly hurl it around. Clever braking systems actively help the car tuck its nose into apexes by braking the inside front wheel, so the nose is instantly obedient unless you’ve seriously misjudged the corner. The rears grip superbly, but when the hold finally gives it’s so well balanced that it just shimmies its hips as the power goes down again. The blasts up the hill are short, but they’re so much fun that I forget just how much my backaches.

Sadly, the fun doesn’t last. Barely an hour after we arrive, a group of clouds that have been gathering in the distance barrel towards us, deluging us first with massive hailstones and then with big ol’ fat rain that soon turns the incredible Taif road into a waterslide. With a heavy heart, we abandon the mission.

Saudi is quite a place. In our quick blat across it we didn’t get close to unravelling any of its mysteries, and frankly uncovered even more. But just for the prospect of attacking the Taif Road again, when the diggers, boulders and elements are gone, I fully intend to return.


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McLaren MP4-12C
Engine: V8 / twin turbo / 3799cc
Power: 616bhp @ 7500rpm
Torque: 442lb ft @ 3000-7000rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed SSG automatic / rear wheel drive
Suspension: ProActive Chassis Control
Brakes: Cast iron discs with forged aluminium hubs / 370mm (front) / 350mm (rear)
Wheels: 19 x 8.5-in J (front) / 20 x 11-in J (rear)
Tyres: 235/35 R19 (front) / 305/30 R20 (rear) / Pirelli P Zero
Weight (kerb) 1336kg
0-100kph: 3.1sec
Top speed: 333kph

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