Kevin Hackett gets in a Nissan Patrol for a taste of what it's like to drive in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, and finds he's quite capable.
On testing terrain in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
So you think you can drive, huh? None of us likes to think that we're useless behind the wheel, but the question of whether or not you're any good is pretty irrelevant because there are many different factors to take into consideration. You might be an expert at trundling through dense urban traffic without getting so much as a scratch on your precious paintwork, but could you cut it on a race track? And even if you can set a Stig-like lap time on your favourite circuit, what are you like at driving off-road?
Even when it comes to off-roading, there are a great many variables to contend with. If you're an experienced dune basher, it doesn't necessarily mean you could take on Sébastien Loeb on the stages of the World Rally Championship, does it? Like asking how long is a piece of string, the question of being a good driver is one that has no real answer and, in any case, nobody - no matter how good they are - ever really stops learning. We could all be better.
With this in mind, I find myself heading for Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall at the west end of the capital's Corniche, where I'm supposed to see whether or not I'm any good at driving a car on terrain that could best be described as "churned up". It's Sunday, the sky is as grey as an accountant's suit and, before I can get too confident about my untested abilities, I'll be witnessing almost 150 acknowledged experts tearing round the course, trying to set the best possible time. At least they should all have left by the time I climb aboard the Nissan Patrol Hard Top that's patiently waiting to be soundly thrashed.
This is the qualifying stage for 2012's Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, where the results will determine the starting grid line-up for the following day's initial leg. On two wheels and four, these world-class riders, drivers and adventurers are gearing up to spend the best part of a week in some of the harshest conditions nature can throw at them. They must be slightly mad, one and all. This is why I like them, without having met them, and their vehicles range from fairly standard-looking trail bikes and quads to heavily modified cars and SUVs that wouldn't have looked out of place on the set of Mad Max 3. "Tough" doesn't even come close to describing them.
They have descended on Abu Dhabi from 35 countries across the globe, to compete for glory in one of the toughest motorsport challenges anywhere, and this is the closest many onlookers will be able to get to them.
The event is free to enter as a spectator and there's plenty of access to the vehicles and competitors as people mill around, agog at the crazy machinery and the loud suits, helmets and other safety gear they're all wearing. It's a serious business, this, but I can't help thinking that, in the big scheme of things, it's all a bit irrelevant. I mean, how much difference will a second or two make when these guys will be out in the desert for the next few days?
This is international motorsport, and rules are rules. So I sit and watch as the bikers and quad riders set their times first. The course is 2km long, from start to finish, and is marked out by iron poles stuck into the sand with red and white ribbon stretched between each one. Competitors start out by taking their vehicles up and onto the special starting ramp, before being counted down and waved off. As they accelerate, sand is churned up in huge quantities and fills the windy air. Miraculously (or it may be something to do with raw talent), nobody falls off, gets stuck or otherwise embarrasses themselves. That'll be my job …
I'm here at the behest of Nissan Middle East, one of the sponsors of the event. The company's banners are everywhere and for good reason: many of those taking part are doing so in its vehicles. There are certain attributes you really need in a vehicle when thrashing it through the wilds of the UAE: rugged construction and reliability - and these Nissans definitely possess both of those.
Soon, the bikes and quads give way to SUVs and specially built cars that look like they've been designed to traverse the surface of the moon. They all appear to be massively powerful, with ferocious roars emanating from their exhausts before they emit huge bangs on the overrun between gearshifts. More impressive, however, is the way the drivers manage to slide around the corners with seemingly no traction, maintaining their chosen direction and putting down all that power, even through the huge crater that's been dug and half filled with water. It's quite a sight.
The pack eventually thins out and the riders and drivers exit the makeshift arena. My turn is fast approaching so I make my way down to the Patrol Hard Top. It's the model that was launched last November - three doors, short wheelbase, automatic transmission and, here's the best bit, a 4.8L six-cylinder engine. If I let myself down on the course, I can't imagine it will be anything to do with the car. After all, apart from Australia, there are precious few territories where Nissan sells these things. This model is made for our uniquely savage surroundings, to be enjoyed by hard-core dune bashers.
I take my seat and fire up the Patrol. It rumbles into life and I make sure my seat belt is securely fastened before making my way up the start ramp. The crowds have gone but a small group of onlookers remains, although they seem more interested in dissecting the day's results than my personal tomfoolery. There's nobody counting me down, so I simply gun the throttle and try to steer it in some sort of semblance of direction. It isn't easy.
In fact, after 150-odd vehicles have ploughed up the surface, it's quite treacherous, with large rocks peppering the soft and deep ruts in the sand.
Yet I still manage to keep the power on and steer the abused Nissan without going too far off course. The corners are tight and as I reach every apex I apply plenty of opposite lock with the wheel, executing what I think are pretty expert drifts. And then I overcook things. The rear of the Patrol runs far too wide and I'm in danger of ending up stuck in sand up to the axles while facing the wrong way. With the car's nose protruding through the marker ribbon, at least I haven't impaled it on one of the iron stakes and, crucially, I haven't come to a complete standstill.
Motion is everything on hideous surfaces such as this, and I'm still moving. So I slam it into reverse with full lock on the steering wheel. I'm back in the right direction and once again floor the throttle. The stones and rocks clatter against the Patrol's undercarriage but never throw it off course and, before I know it, I've reached the finish line, grinning like a buffoon. This car has made light work of some of the most hideous terrain I've ever driven on - no wonder it's the weapon of choice for some of the intrepid Desert Challenge competitors.
"You should do this professionally," says Nissan's PR lady. "You were really very good," remarks Nissan's official photographer. I smile, knowing they're paid to keep grumpy journalists sweet, but I can't help feel that my couple of minutes have proved something: I'm a fairly good driver no matter what environment I find myself in. But I'm light years away from being an expert.