In July there are five-hour photo shoots in the desert and, inevitably, underestimated hydration requirements. Sun sickness is a real, man-grade illness. Around every September there is the marathon run through the Frankfurt or Paris motor show, and the never-ending motoring journalist tedium of airport lounges, shuttle buses, consulate queues, stale croissants and delayed flights. This gig isn’t always all smoke and sideways glory. Over the next two days and a collective 7,000km, with 40 hands, three photographers, one videographer and one assistant, two drones, four GoPros and one Sony action cam, 18 men and two women, one support truck, dozens of shwarmas and thousands of splatted insects, seven judges and 14 competing cars, we intend to come to a conclusion, to find the winner, the best of the best, the wheels 2015 Car of the Year. These are the good days.
But we should begin with yesterday: the wheels car park is bare and silent. There isn’t a single heat haze rising off a vented carbon-fibre bonnet. Imran isn’t revving the nuts off some or other V8 and Kinan isn’t fascinated by a glovebox somewhere, carefully inspecting the SAE rating of a concealed bolt and highlighting passages in the owner’s manual. Fadi hasn’t taken a single selfie grinning in front of a Ferrari. This car park needs more cars.
Once again and in typical wheels fashion we’ve left everything way too late and the day before the scheduled shoot and a weekend commitment from 20 people, we still haven’t actually acquired a single vehicle. Well, apart from the Volkswagen Golf R, which handily arrived eight weeks earlier, entering our long-term fleet. And the Chevy Silverado pick-up truck, which will be acting as a mobile HQ for this entire CotY escapade as well as a handy camera car. Immediately the multimedia guys make themselves comfortable occupying the extended bed with hardcases, ladders and tripods, and also every USB slot, 12V lighter slot and of course, its party piece, the three-prong power outlet, with their myriad battery chargers, flashes, strobes and whatnots.
Only 13 cars to go, then. So we split into teams tasked with different ends of town for maximum efficiency, while Amit glues a phone to his ear running the logistics of half-a-dozen flatbed truck drivers collecting and delivering more cars for us. We load up into the Silverado and tackle the first ordeal, morning Deira traffic to pick up some Mercs and a Porsche. As the flatbeds start arriving and unloading, three of them from Abu Dhabi, the Golf R slowly starts welcoming some company. Team B heads south down SZR and wastes ages for the privilege of a Lamborghini. We collect the luminous green (Verde Mantis to be specific) Huracán from the company’s Dubai service centre, and it doesn’t escape us how many Aventadors and Murciélagos sit lined up neatly, each awaiting a new front end to replace a smashed one. There are no sneers. Lambos have bitten us before… Them will be the bad days.
The Ferraris are a doddle, because our resident Tifoso Fadi naturally arrives at 7am and makes it his personal burden to collect the 458 Speciale and California T. The man’s a true martyr. When he pulls in with the Cali, we all demand redlined revs to assess its Ferrari-ness, and the new twin-turbocharged V8 calls its flat-crank into bellowing action and passes the test with flying colours.
There are smiles all around, and an unspoken consensus that a future of force-fed Ferraris just might be the kind of future we all want to live in. Then I notice Fadi’s already preset his favourite radio stations and memory-programmed his driving position. I think I can guess what key he’ll be wrestling for tomorrow.
And now it’s tomorrow, today.
At some point we’d already picked up the Rolls-Royce while the rest were delivered dutifully polished, shined, brimmed. Only a couple of cars need filling up, which is taken care of before the official designated start time of 6.30am.
Everyone obviously arrives late, and by 8am I’m still upstairs behind the desk putting some finishing touches on the road book for the day. Only I can’t call them finishing touches. Every car’s trip meter is zeroed and there’s a printed road book on each passenger seat, but taking one look at our round-the-UAE route, our man Ed from wheels HQ brazenly remarks: “I guess you’re aware of the 2015 Dubai Cycle Tour…”
No Ed, no, I’m not… The entire plan is now in shambles and hours of careful mapping of specific roads and shooting locations over the previous few days go to waste. The Dubai Tour and its road closures spreading as far as Hatta and the east coast force us to completely rethink our roadtrip.
But, of course, there was always a Plan B, which when it comes to wheels and our spontaneous shenanigans somehow always ends up becoming the only plan. So instead of Hatta and Kalba and so on, it’s Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Dibba, Masafi, Al Dhaid, Dubai… a 500km round trip, 14 competing cars, 7,000 collective kilometres. Plenty of klicks to suss out the eventual winner.
Short straws are pulled, and some end up in a Captur, others in a Mazda 3 hatchback, and still others pull a Rolls-Royce fob out of the magic hat, or a good old-fashioned Ferrari turn-key. We’ll swap vehicles during the day anyway and assess different contestants over different terrain and suitable roads, of course, yet year after year the wheels CotY start line always produces this immature giddiness amongst us, as to who will get to drive what.
Amit, being the boss, nonchalantly breaks the rules (you’re supposed to pick a key out of the ‘hat’ — it’s really a box — blindfolded) and coolly pockets the i8’s key. Imran’s luck is in; he pulls the Lambo… Fadi’s nerve-memory means he easily identifies the California’s key. Sony slyly weighs his options — the Jag’s key is heaviest. Jonathan merely goes for the biggest one: Rolls… Ed’s relieved with his Macan Turbo considering the hot choices are rapidly diminishing now. I somehow end up in the Silverado support truck. Good days and bad days, remember.
A few cars are left unwanted in the Gulf News compound. A 458 Speciale doesn’t even make our wheels 2015 CotY cut. Neither does a BMW M4, or an M235i, or a Lexus RC F…
And we already have a problem. Half past eight in the morning, and with the magical golden hour passing, we set off tippy-toeing into a fog enveloping the city. Visibility up SZR is good for maybe 100m. I take it as a sign — a fog usually lifts to reveal a bright day, right?
All the cars are covered in morning dew and we have to use the windscreen wipers. Malek the chief photographer is seething — there are now wiper outlines on the windows, OMG! With so little traffic on a Friday morning we’re out of Dubai in mere minutes and there’s still no sign of the sun. By 9am the 15-strong convoy pulls into a petrol station to, perhaps, mull over Plan C.
We go over the Three Golden Rules, again, just to get a few drifters back into line. “Never switch a car off. Never remove a key from a car. Never leave more than a three-car gap between the vehicle in front and you,” I repeat, for the third time this morning. Half the crew breaks at least one of the Three Golden Rules before we even reach this first stop on the edge of Al Khawaneej. “Look,” cries a Gulf News colleague, Alex, “I know about your Three Golden Rules but my car switches itself off on its own!” Alex is in the Audi A3, with stop-start.