Eight days on top of the world

Eight days on top of the world

A GTC4Lusso T tackled 3,000km of Himalayan roads, with ease

Ben Oliver

At first glance the scene seems familiar: a thin ribbon of black tarmac wriggles up a mountainside as if it has fallen there quite randomly. The climbing road is full of bends, winding its way among one of the most famous and fearsome mountain ranges in the world. This could be one of the great Alpine passes, the Stelvio or the Grand St. Bernard, where the legend of Ferrari's road-going Gran Turismo cars was forged. But these peaks are not the Alps, and this Ferrari GTC4Lusso T is a very long way from its Italian home.


These are in the Himalayas, in Tibet, and this Ferrari took an eight-day, 3,000km journey, from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwest China, to Lhasa, the region's capital. It is a road that skirts the southern end of the famous mountain range and runs along China's borders with Myanmar, India, Bhutan and Nepal.


Enzo Ferrari may have foreseen many things, but surely even he couldn't have predicted that one day one of his road cars would run free in one of the highest, most remote, most dramatic places on earth. The trip took place in winter, when sub-zero overnight temperatures turn the heavy rain to ice that remains on the shaded parts of the road well into the morning.


And, of course, there's the altitude. From Kunming at 1,892m - already higher than some Alpine passes - the route climbed steadily, remaining above 4,000m for long periods before finishing at Lhasa at 3,600m. Such altitudes are tough on both machine and driver. For every 100m of elevation above sea level, a naturally aspirated engine can lose a full one per cent of its performance as air density declines.


The 1,000-room Potala Palace in Lhasa, a World Heritage Site, rises from the hillside

The attributes of the GTC4Lusso T made it ideal for this journey. The 3.9-litre turbocharged V8 engine is popular in China, and with the same 91-litre fuel tank as the V12 car and greater fuel efficiency it has a longer range, ideal when fuel stations may be scarce. The turbocharged engine pressurises its intake air itself, so the altitude makes little difference to its huge 610PS output.


The driver, Lei Meng, editor-in-chief of 'Car Magazine China', says that the conversations with policemen, petrol pump attendants and passers-by he encountered - most who had never seen a Ferrari before - were a highlight of the trip. Their incredulity at finding the most iconic of sports cars mixing it with their usual buses and taxis was matched only by their concern that it might not make it all the way to Lhasa. "From Shangri-La onwards, people began to say 'you won't get through'," Meng recalls. "Staff at a gas station told us emphatically that sports cars can never pass one particular stretch, and always have to be retrieved by a truck. We just smiled politely and made it through."


After a 3,000km trek along mountain roads, the GTC4Lusso T takes a well-deserved break

When Meng reached the famous 72 bends by the Nu River, with the classic switchback mountain road and that view of the peaks, he might rightly have imagined himself as a 1960s Italian industrialist, driving across the Alps in his newly-collected Ferrari 250GT Lusso. But road trips aren't just about driving: the team also took time to take in the natural wonders along the way. One night they stopped at the Laigu glacier, from where - thanks to the cloudless, perfectly clear sky - they marvelled at the heavens.


They were rewarded with equally clear roads for the final-day approach to Lhasa where, when they arrived, they encountered a spectacular scene: the 1,000-room Potala Palace, a 13-storey structure built into the hillside, bedecked in brightly-coloured Buddhist prayer flags. It may not have been the typical grand tour, but it was certainly one deserving of the name.