Built on arid wasteland, Abu Dhabi is nothing short of an engineering miracle. You are reminded of this everywhere you go. Most spaces from towering skyscrapers to humble bus shelters are air-conditioned to fight the searing heat, with the thermostat often set so low that you require a jacket to combat hypothermia instead. At the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, you’ll find the world’s biggest carpet hand-knotted in one perfect, continuous piece. It is the size of a soccer field and contains over 2.2 billion knots.
Or this road I am driving on, route E65. It cuts across the emirate, from the city in the coastal north towards the sparsely populated Liwa Oasis in the south, the last frontier before you meet a barren sand desert known as the Rub’ al Khali. Its more descriptive English name: the Empty Quarter. It’s a massive 650,000 sq km dust bowl that spreads thenceforth to Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, so inhospitable that even the Bedouin nomads, who know a thing or two about survival, abandoned it 1,700 years ago.
Yet, on this ramrod-straight two-lane paved highway, verdant palm trees line almost its 150km-long entirety, standing defiantly to meet the three centimetres of rainfall the desert receives annually. The irrigation that makes this happen boggles the mind.
Which brings me to the Ferrari whose wheel I am behind. It is the second-generation California that was launched two years ago, the California T. The 2+2 grand tourer, whose retractable hard top stays closed in the 35 deg C heat today, is purring along with the needle sitting at 120kmh.
We are here for the Deserto Rosso event, a handful of journalists on a journey replicating that which members of the local Ferrari owners club took in January through the desert’s red sands, from The Ritz-Carlton hotel in the city to the uber-luxe Qasr Al Sarab resort near the Saudi border. Punching the accelerator to pass the occasional lumbering truck, the car responds in an instant with an endless tsunami of delicious, linear torque, accompanied by the wailing soundtrack of eight cylinders firing madly all the way to the 7,500rpm redline.
Typical character of a naturally aspirated Ferrari engine, you say. Except it is not. You see, the “T” in the nameplate stands for “Turbocharged”, hitherto a dirty word to Ferrari, which prides itself on engines that sing, and a throttle that has a one-to-one relationship between its degree of opening and power.
Turbocharging mutes engines, because it works by re-routing some of the exhaust back into the motor, a loop that inevitably adds a lag between intention and result. But, thanks to an EU bent on cutting emissions, forced induction has been a necessary evil if you want to make up the power lost from smaller but more fuel-efficient engines.
Having been compelled to make the switch, Ferrari is nonetheless pulling some engineering feats of its own, putting in place two low-inertia turbines, the smaller one taking charge while the larger one spools up, reducing the perceived lag. It has also remapped the boost so that torque feels more linear, even capping it at lower gears – not a huge problem because turbocharged engines has a surfeit of it. A final touch: flat-plane crankshafts and equal-length exhaust manifolds to recover as much of that shrill spine-tingling sound as possible.
That is an impressive amount of work for what is essentially a model that could be described as “my first Ferrari” – 70 per cent of buyers are new to the brand – and placed in a position in the product matrix more dedicated to boulevard cruising than track racing. In other words, Ferrari could have cared much, much less, and customers probably could not spot the difference. But that is just the way Ferrari does things, and more power to it for that.
And I’m glad to report that the California T is lovely to drive. Cruising down the highway with Gatsos every few kilometres or so to keep from going too crazy with the right foot, we have plenty of time to ruminate over how relaxed the car is: the engine is burbling, the steering is light (perhaps a touch too light) and the seats extremely cosseting.
ENGINE 3.9-litre, 8-cylinder turbo
POWER 552bhp at 7,500rpm
TORQUE 775Nm at 4,750rpm
0-100KMH 3.6 sec
TOP SPEED 316kmh
People can be intimidated by the Ferrari brand. After all, you see it on TV doing power slides. You question whether you can handle such a powerful vehicle. But in day-to-day driving, perhaps the only thing reminding you that you are not in, say, a Mercedes SL AMG is the steering wheel which, in typical Ferrari fashion, is plastered with F1-style buttons and switches around it.
The car is honed for precisely the kind of driver who values comfort and practicality over raw unadulterated performance. Heck, there are even cup holders and rear seats. But it is relative: Any way you cut it, the figures are astounding – zero to 100kmh in 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 316kmh. We stop by the Emirates National Auto Museum for a photo. It’s a bizarre establishment, fronted by a cafeteria fashioned out of a colossal Land Rover Defender. Venturing farther into the grounds, we find a pyramid housing the indoor exhibits and a decommissioned Lockheed L-1011 Tristar that sits forlorn in the yard. The latter is part of the eclectic collection of vehicles kept by the owner of the museum, Sheikh Hamad Hamdan Al Nahyan, a member of the royal family.
With the day ending, we press on, past camel farms, small forests of date palms and the odd oryx grazing on a shrivelled bush. The sand turns increasingly into a blushing shade of red, indicating the increased concentrations of feldspar as we approach the Empty Quarter. Soon, we reach the private 12km-long road that leads to our destination, the Qasr Al Sarab.
The driveway winds up and down, over and around the sand dunes, some over 100m tall – a landscape that is dry, windy, desolate and utterly beautiful. It is also one that is free of speed traps. Here, the California T comes to life. It picks up speed with startling alacrity, hugging corner after corner as if it were on rails and the engine screaming as if to shout more gas, more, more!
We make such short work of the 12km that we turn around four times. (I am surprised by the distance when I look it up; it feels much shorter – but Google Maps does not lie.) We push the car harder and harder, beyond what we think it can handle, yet it just keeps going and going. The balance is impeccable. Turn in, the tail slides out a bit; apply a tiny amount of opposite lock, dab on the accelerator, and it is back on track again.
Taking a breather, we park up next to a dune, quietly savouring the mesmerising glow bathing the vista that is cast by the setting sun. The air is still blistering hot, but we decide to put the roof down. We could be luxuriating in the comforts of the resort by now, but we would find any reason not to hand back the keys so soon.
So, I ask my co-driver: Another lap then?