Exclusive drive: the king of Leons
TopGear.com gets a first drive in Seat’s new touring car racer
Posted: 14 Oct 2013
What do we have here?
It's an off-the-shelf Leon Cup touring car, which you could use for anything from track days to the actual world touring car championship. Seat has a decent history with tin-tops, having won the WTCC in 2008 and '09, and the BTCC - with a pair of diesels - in 2006. There's also a one-make series with a whole grid of near-identical Leons, not to mention various other championships and one-off races.
Is there a road-going Leon lurking in there?
Like the road car, it's built on the VW Group's MQB platform. It shares about 30 per cent of its bits with the road car, including the 2.0-litre turbo engine and multi-link rear suspension. Of course, there have been a few upgrades. For starters the four cylinder's been turned up to 330bhp, with the bonus horsepower coming courtesy of a bigger airbox with competition filter, a more boosty turbo, reprogrammed ECU, a stainless exhaust and a more pumpy fuel pump.
The big brake discs are made from regular steel to keep costs down, though you could source some carbon alternatives. The wheels are aluminium and weigh roughly 10kg per corner - not as flyweight as some racers, but not unusually heavy. The tyres are slick (it's mercifully dry today). The springs and dampers are race-spec (and very adjustable). And it's all clothed in a wide body - nearly two metres at the hips, where the sharp rear arches stream off the car's backside like Batman's cape tips.
What about the oily bits?
The steering is hydraulic, but the finished customers' cars - in Cup or Endurance versions - will have an electric system. From there on, you can pick and mix from a kit of parts. This car has a fully mechanical front diff, but there's an electronically-controlled alternative. Neither has traction control or ABS, although the Seat motorsport bosses are still in two minds about offering the latter as an option. You can stick with the standard 55-litre tank, or add another 60 litres for longer races. This one has a sequential 'box from ZF, or there's a double-clutcher with paddles - essentially a beefed-up DSG from a road car - which is 20 grand cheaper.
Good. Are you going to drive it now?
Soon. First I must get in without dinging my head and knees on the roll cage. You sit way down low and much further back than in the road car. The seat is pushed a few inches inboard and several inches rearwards, so your shoulder is level with the B pillar. I've no idea where the corners are (no wonder touring car drivers nerf each other so often). The dashboard has been nudged forward 30cm compared to the road car's, and now holds a hi-def TFT screen displaying revs and temperatures and other things crucial to the car's wellbeing. Thankfully the steering wheel adjusts for reach in the same way as a road car's, which is an unusual but welcome touch for a racing car, and makes sense for physically mismatched drivers seeking quick swap-overs in an endurance race.
How about now?
Ok. Flick some toggles - the ignition master switch and whatnot - then press the silver starter button on the centre console. The engine and exhaust bubble into action. Clutch in, grab the gearlever, which thunks into first gear the way a big motorbike does. Ease out the clutch (you won't need it again until you stop... or spin), feed in a good dose more power than you would in a road car, then off you go. For a racing car it's not too grumpy, though from the moment you move it's keen for you to get on with things.
After that it's a sucker for punishment. The sequential 'box begs for full-throttle upshifts, and will stutter if you even think about lifting off the throttle. Same deal when changing down - the lever demands a firm biff with your palm, while braking as hard as possible. Otherwise it gets all upset and jerky, at which point the back end gets floaty. At first I forget whether I should be pushing or pulling the tall gearstick, but here's a tip: if you're being thrown forward on the brakes, push the lever in the same direction. It'll change down. When you're being thrust backwards by acceleration, give it a tug. It'll shift up. I suspect the flappy-paddled car would be easier to drive at correct and proper speeds - at least for those of us without oodles of race car experience - as you'd worry less about that see-sawing weight transfer the ZF 'box magnifies.
Apart from the gearshifts, it's actually not too bad. The suspension isn't stupidly stiff. Perhaps a touch softer than I was expecting... enough to feel a slight tip as you stamp on the brakes. The steering is fairly light, even at garage-exit speed. There's a whiff of roll as it turns into a corner - nothing compared to the weighty lollop of a road car, but enough to let you know what the car's doing, or what it intends to do. So it's unlikely that it'll slap you around the face. Although not impossible...
You messed up, didn't you?
Yes. This car's a prototype, and the info display isn't fully calibrated with all its sensors, so sixth gear is displayed as fourth. Unfortunately this fact escapes my mind as I steam into a hairpin in top gear. On the brakes, down to third. Or rather, what I think is third. It's actually fifth, so I enter the corner approximately 20mph too fast, on tyres approximately 40 degrees too cold. Around goes the back. I complete a tidy little spin and stop (clutch pressed), at 90 degrees to the track, which happens to be very sloped at this spot. Still, it gives me a chance to try out the handbrake as I turn the car around. It works fine.
Confidence slightly damaged, it takes a while to get going again. But then I find a rhythm. The Seat crew has given us a set of short ratios for this mediumly fast and twisty circuit at Castelloli, just west of Barcelona. So, short-shifting is the order of the day. Tug the lever. Full throttle. Whoosh. Shift again. Whoosh. Ride that turbo. It's fast, but not terrifying, and there's a full aero kit to help sucker it down along the straights. Otherwise it's all about the mechanical grip, and after a few laps you feel the tyres come to life (it's front wheel drive), the rubber warming like putty in hot hands. All the while you begin to bond with the car, but remain acutely aware of your inputs and how a clumsy brake-prod may upset the balance.
That cabin doesn't look especially pillowy...
It weighs under 1100kg, so the interior is naked, with just a veneer of carbon fibre here and there to preserve its modesty. Flick the metal floor and it plinks. It's a little echo chamber in here. And in this Spanish heat, with no aircon, also a torture chamber. The transmission whines and whirrs and bores right into your skull. It's a classic touring car noise, straight from the onboard footage familiar to tin-top racing fans. From outside it's all metallic and angry, with venomous spits when you come off the power and a witchy cough as the sequential 'box bites into the next gear.
Is it loud?
Today it's belting out 102 decibels, which is fairly rock'n'roll compared to even an average supercar. But there's an optional, quieter exhaust system to circumnavigate stern track day noise regulations.
So what's the damage?
For a DSG car, around £75,000. For this sequential version, a shade under £95k. Of course, some customers will add a full racing team, trucks, catering and crew. But if you're a few quid short of the full race package, consider this. At this money, it's about the same price as some track-day specials. A BAC Mono, for example, will set you back over £100k. The Leon, in DSG form, looks like decent value next to that. Alright, so it's not road legal, but with the 20 grand you'd saved by going for the cheaper gearbox, you could buy a Fiesta ST. To which you could probably affix a towbar and trailer...
Words: Dan Read
Photography: Rowan Horncastle