The worst touring car debut ever?
“Whatever you do, don’t finish last.” As confidence-boosters go, this text from Top Gear editor-in-chief Charlie Turner isn’t what you want as you’re about to line up on the grid for one of the most competitive one-make championships out there, the Seat Leon Eurocup event at Silverstone.
To be fair, there’s actually a distinct possibility that I could finish at the back. During the Eurocup’s previous meeting, just 1.5 seconds separated front and back of the 23-car grid, and this is my first time in the Leon. In truth, I’ve never raced a front-wheel drive touring car before. The fact that I’m also not very good compounds the issue.
Still, the next sentence of Charlie’s text is a little more constructive. “Drive it like you stole it.” He has a point. The stuff I’m used to racing - rusty historics from the 1960s - requires a gentle touch and delicate inputs. This Leon is not such a machine. A bit more brute force is needed.
The Eurocup racer starts off life on the same factory line as the Leon road cars, before being hoiked off and stripped back to the bone. Plenty is removed, including sound deadening, seats and door panels, before racery parts are added.
There’s a full roll cage, a race-spec seat that sits far further back and lower than the road car’s, a new dash is installed, the track is widened front and rear by a whopping 25cm, and the ECU of the 2.0-litre engine (the same found in the Leon Cupra) is tweaked. Along with a new intake and altered exhaust, this latter adjustment releases another 49bhp, for a total output of around 330bhp.
The racer’s DSG gearbox gets shorter ratios, and the front diff gains three extra settings - standard, short circuit and one for wet weather. After all that, it’s about as related to your Leon Cupra road car as I am to Usain Bolt.
Lining up on the Silverstone grid, one happy consequence of the DSG is that I’m at least unlikely to stall at the start. There is, however, another problem - not being able to see the gantry lights. I’m sat so low in the Leon that all I can see is the arse of the cars in front, of which there are many. But hey, at least I didn’t qualify last.
I qualified second-last.
Is that a glimpse of a red start-light up ahead? Drop the gearbox into Sport mode to engage the launch control, left foot hard down on the brake pedal, right foot hard down on the accelerator. The Leon holds the revs at 4,000rpm, so all I have to do is release the brake pedal when the red lights go out. Lights out, launch… and as I feed the Leon through the first couple of corners, the rest of the grid clears off into the middle distance with impressive pace. How is that possible?
I remember some helpful advice from a Seat engineer: to be ‘on it’ right from the word go. And ‘on it’, in this case, really does mean ‘on it’. I’ve got fresh slicks, and need to make the most of them. I really have to start driving like all the data says I should be driving. Roughly translated, the data says I need to be a lot quicker, everywhere.
This is single-make racing, a sprint race of just 11 laps, and there’s no time to bed in, or to let others make mistakes. I lose seconds in the first two laps, and from there my race is essentially over. One second is a lifetime out here, so I’m left at the back of the field, on my own, to concentrate on setting a decent lap time.
And as I start to gain the confidence to grab the Leon by the scruff, it becomes clear it’s a mighty impressive thing. It’s flat in places I never thought possible, and the way you can simply sling the car into a corner, let the front tyres understeer to scrub some of the speed off for you, is incredible.
There’s so much feel through the seat that you’re aware of what every wheel is up to, and the front diff is superb. Have faith, and it will stick.
And the brakes. Oh, the brakes. Stamp on them as hard as you like and you won’t lock up, and then you need to bleed off as you slow down. It’s the complete opposite to anything else I’ve ever raced. It’s strange but excellent.
Eventually, the Leon and I settle into a consistent pace and, by the end of the race, my times are comparable to those of the other racers in the field. I’m last on the road, but not technically last because some other cars didn’t actually finish the race. Ha!
But those first two laps on fresh rubber, when I should have been much quicker, were what killed it for me. ‘Aggressive from the word go’ is my mantra for Race Two.
The starting grid is the same as Race One, but this time around I get a much better start. Slinging past the car directly in front, I move to the middle of the track, hoping to latch onto the rest of the pack ahead.
Into Copse, on the brakes, leave a little bit of room on the right for the bloke coming through there, and then I notice something in my peripheral vision to the left. A car is coming in way too fast, and at a very strange angle.
Turns out the driver of said car thought using my car’s nose as a brake was a much better way of taking Copse. It also turns out that that was a bad idea for both him and me. I’m tapped into a spin, and he barrel rolls across the circuit and into the gravel. Serves him right… is what I’d think if I wasn’t such a generously minded chap.
At this point time slows horribly. I’m parked crossways in the middle of the circuit, the engine’s still running and my immediate thought is to escape the line of fire. Not possible. I glance left, and realise that things are about to get a lot worse. There’s another Leon heading straight for me, and this impact could be terminal. With a hideous crunch, I’m T-boned, rear suspension smashed. Game over. Last on the road and this time also technically last, with a big fat DNF even before the first corner. Eurocup racing: not so straightforward as it looks.
Even so, despite making one hell of a mess of their car, we’ve asked Seat if they would mind awfully if we had another go at not finishing last at another Eurocup race. For some reason they didn’t run a mile. Check back here later in the year to see how we get on. Couldn’t possibly be worse, right?
Pictures: Dom Romney