The ultimate endurance test

Panamerican 20000, photo: Gabriela Noris

It doesn’t seem possible that production Ferraris could negotiate the steep, twisting roads of the Andes or tour the whole of China and India with minimal underbody protection. But we discover they’ve done just that and with whom

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

What differentiates champion sports stars from the rest of us is their ability to get results that, in most cases, would be impossible for others to achieve. Indeed, their achievements are such that they’re often elevated to a god-like status. Ferrari, in a certain sense, has followed this same path. Born as just one car among many, it was able to quickly obtain the results that distinguishes a champion from an also ran. Ferrari’s many victories on the track and its unique nature have raised it to the position of sporting giant, and it is certainly no accident that its early race successes caused Enzo Ferrari to develop a particular affection for endurance racing. In Formula One, it is the driver who wins, who is awarded the title of World Champion, yet in the world’s greatest endurance races it’s the cars that win, as they are always driven by a number of drivers.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours are arguably the most famous events in endurance racing; races where the cars are required to perform to their maximum and withstand prolonged stress as they battle their rivals to the chequered flag. Ferrari’s enduring reputation in global motorsport has a lot to do with their record in endurance racing. They have also achieved success in races that subject their cars to a different type of stress altogether: races such as the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Panamericana, the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy and the Targa Florio. Races that, in addition to the extreme distance, include the uncertainty of ever-changing situations, of varied terrain and of unforeseen events that are often dangerous and sometimes fatal. Such is Ferrari’s strength at endurance racing that it has taken the next step and entered numerous longdistance tours over the past few years. These include the ‘China 15,000 Red Miles’, ‘Panamerican 20000’ and ‘Magic India Discovery’ tours, which have seen the 12-cylinder 612 Scaglietti and the 599 GTB Fiorano perform exploits that exceed what is generally agreed to be the ultimate test of a car – a 24-hour race. ‘The main difference is the conditions you come up against. On the track, the car is constantly being checked and in the pits there’s a big team ready to make any change you need.

These stories are proof that this kind of journey constitutes a kind of unrepeatable super test drive

The conditions in a race remain the same; at most, the weather might change. In a longdistance tour, however, you find yourself on roads and stretches that are unthinkable for a Ferrari, and then there is the dust, sand, mud and altitude – we drove above 5000m! There is [also] another major variable: in races, the drivers are professionals. In our journey there were journalists at the wheel. Excellent drivers, yes, but… each in their own way!’ So say in unison the three technicians of the tours who have met up to talk about the adventures they experienced: Gigi Barp, from the first event, the China tour; Enrico Goldoni, who was on the tour that took the cars along the entire American Cordillera; and Andrea Costantini, technical manager on the journey around India.
To understand the thinking behind the China tour, you need to know that Ferrari likes to push the envelope and establish its supremacy in every field it enters. In 2003, when the whole world was talking of China – mainly in terms of Beijing and Shanghai – the thinking at Maranello was to tour the whole of China. The chosen car was to be the 612 Scaglietti (two of them), which had only just been unveiled. At that time, Barp was the technical manager for the Chinese market after years of working as a technician on new car development and road testing. He didn’t demur at the prospect of this adventure – quite the contrary. With him would be Gabriele Lalli, who was in charge of logistics and would later organise the Panamerican and Magic India tours. In the lead-up to the China tour, Barp began preparing the cars in the typical Ferrariano manner: changing very little as the Scaglietti performs so well already. In fact, after the cars went through in-house test drives and endurance tests, the only modifications to the car were the addition of sub-chassis protection against rocks and potholes, a reserve petrol tank (as nobody was sure just how available petrol would be in places as remote as the Gobi Desert and Tibet) and an electronic control unit with a wider range so the cars could handle loweroctane fuel at altitudes above 5000 metres.

‘We reached our record level for fuel in South America,’ adds Goldoni, ‘where we had to drive the 599 with petrol below 80 octane. We were carrying cans of Shell V Power to give [the car] a bit of help, but we had to manage as best we could.’ Alongside the many difficulties of driving in China is the fact that you need a Chinese driving licence, and not everybody can take a driving test in Chinese… Thanks to the help of Fiat China everybody gained the required licences: not just the team members – from brave photographer Gabriela Noris to TV cameramen Luca Gualdi and Andrea Gioacchini – but the journalists from all over the world who took turns behind the wheel at four- to five-day intervals. The China tour, which lasted around 60 days, crossed the northern region of Inner Mongolia, turned west to Kashgar, moved on to Lhasa in Tibet, and then down to the tropical southern region of Shenzen before returning to the starting point of Shanghai. To this day it remains an unparalleled achievement. No other manufacturer has attempted as much. And Ferrari, with its years of experience in endurance motorsport, was able to take 50 journalists from all over the world to discover a country that almost everybody knows only through the great cities that link China to us. ‘We never thought we wouldn’t succeed,’ says Barp, ‘but we had a terrible time with floods. We were in the same area where the Three Gorges Dam was being completed. The water had swept away the road and a bridge we should have taken. We didn’t have a very detailed map, such things didn’t exist [of the area], but our interpreter knew an alternative road. [It was] a 400km diversion. There was no option but to take it. After five hours of driving at little more than walking pace we came to a little bridge for pack animals. Would it hold? Before risking a Ferrari and the Australian journalists driving it, we would try to get the spares lorry across. Who would drive? Down below the water was whirling, and the gorge was really deep. The Chinese driver said he wanted to try. There was no other option. He managed it. Then the Ferraris. Just when we thought we’d made it, we arrived in a little village where the streets were narrow. The Ferraris are two metres wide and couldn’t get through. What should we do? ‘We took measurements and combed the town [looking for a way through],’ continues Barp. ‘The very narrowest streets were exactly two metres wide. Let’s try! When we got through to the other end, the sides of the cars had streaks on them. Incredible, but we’d done it. ‘We set off and after a few kilometres there was another surprise. The worst. Even though it had stopped raining, the sky was dark and the clouds were low. It seemed like we could no longer see the road. Seven hours passed, but this was no hallucination. There was only a sea of mud that ended 100 metres down river – the same river with the pack animals’ bridge – a river that seemed even more threatening here. We tried to cross on foot. It was possible.

In races, the drivers are professionals. In our journey there were journalists at the wheel

The mud was around 30 centimetres deep but the bottom seemed firm. We had to try. This time I decided to go in one of the two Scagliettis. Not too slowly, so as to avoid getting stuck half way, but not fast either. I thought I might die if the car began to slide towards the valley and, at a certain point, that’s what began to happen. The front had gone, and I continued to press the accelerator gently in the hope of regaining control. Then, magically, a trough straightened me out and pushed the car’s nose toward the mountain. A touch more of acceleration and I was there. The second time it was much easier. As they say – experience counts! The funny thing is that once we’d arrived at our inn, at four in the morning after travelling for 18 hours (12 of them to cover the last 150km), everyone was really thrilled by the experience. Especially the journalists.’ ‘It’s true, you create a fantastic spirit [on a tour],’ says Costantini, remembering a different yet equally dangerous episode during his tour of India. ‘There was an endless line of lorries, all of them stationary. We didn’t know what had happened and nobody was telling us anything. After a while we decided to pass along the opposite side of the road and after three or four kilometres we reached the cause of the problem: the road had been blocked because of a truckers’ protest against customs taxes. When we got there, all hell broke loose and dozens of them came towards us in a very threatening manner. They had sticks. We couldn’t go forwards or backwards. There was no way out… ‘Incredibly, when they saw there were two Ferraris, things changed. They began to look at the cars with interest, and then with enthusiasm. After 10 minutes they took down the barricades and let us go on!’ These stories are proof that this kind of journey constitutes a kind of unrepeatable super test drive. ‘There was one day, in the Andes, when we found a road that the lorries had transformed into that awful surface the locals call tôle ondulée (corrugated iron),’ says Goldoni. ‘It means constant vibration [for the cars] from which the only escape is to go fast so as to fly over the holes. The problem was the distance… 300 kilometres. It was hell. But the 599s came out of it incredibly well. ‘Another time we were on an Andean road between Huarez and Truillo, carved out of the rock with ravines like in the Donald Duck films,’ continues Goldoni. ‘And we noticed that the cars and lorries had protection on their roofs, made of nets and sheets of iron. Why? We soon found out: rocks, and sometimes boulders, were falling from the mountain above… we were really lucky to get through without any damage.’

The episodes these technicians remember could fill a book. But in order to truly understand these feats, you need to look at the amount of organisation this kind of journey requires. With help from local organisations and a tour operator, the stages of the journey and the rest stops are worked out at Maranello. Every five or six days there is a rest day so that, if necessary, time can be made up in the case of unforeseen events. Hotels and overnight parking places for the cars – which are always guarded – are booked. The group is made up of around 15 people: four journalists, three photographers/ cameramen, three technicians, a local guide and the drivers for the vehicles that carry parts, baggage, emergency food and first-aid equipment. On stages that are at high altitude, such as in China and South America, there is also a doctor with oxygen supply. On rest days, which are chosen so as to be near airports, there is a changeover of journalists: the new teams arrive and the ones that have completed the stage leave. The length of the daily stages vary depending on difficulty and logistical requirements. Sometimes it is necessary to have a long stage because of travelling in areas where the lack of security or other conditions means that an overnight stay is not possible. The surprising thing to come out of these tours is that it has never once been necessary to change the schedule and none of the cars has ever been forced to stop. ‘Yes, of course, we’ve had a few problems: it would be astonishing if that weren’t so,’ says Barp. ‘Once vibrations caused an earth lead to come loose so we had a dead car. Luckily we were in a village and we quickly found where the cable had come free.’ Other problems included a damaged hydro-drive tube, a few broken wheels, half a mudguard torn off by a lorry in India and a change of shock absorbers after the Andes – but nothing more. The reserve car that was always ready at Maranello to be sent in case of disaster never had to move. Fantastic. In the end, it was people who suffered most. Not getting any sleep was part of the deal, but watching what you ate was worse. You had to be absolutely disciplined with food: only sealed drinks, only cooked food, only fruit you’ve peeled yourself. The cars came back in the same perfect condition. ‘In New York [on our return], they thought we’d already sent the cars to the body shop [as] they were in such good condition,’ says Barp. ‘Even the leather was not marked!’ The same could not be said for the people involved, who had undergone a rather special physiotherapy treatment. Barp lost 14 kilos during two months in China; Goldoni, in his three months in America, lost eight kilos; and Costantini, who was already thin, managed to lose almost four kilos during his 70 days in India. That said, they were all very well, even if they experienced day after day of anxiety due to the weight of responsibility they carried. The responsibility of accompanying these very important and valuable cars for months, entrusted to journalists from all over the world in a ‘test drive’ that few other constructors in the world would have had the courage to carry out. Actually, when you think about it: nobody would even attempt, let alone carry out such a thing. Congratulations to all those who took part.

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