Wednesday 11th February 2009


WTCC SEAT LEON TDI

Peter Dignan sucks on diesel for the first time


As you grow older the number of 'firsts' in your life – not the winning type but the experience ones – start to diminish. Etched in your brain’s neurons are the first time you drove a car, the first time you rode solo, and of course the first time your got your very own set of keys. These are all things you don’t forget. As I sit alongside one of my all-time touring car heroes this is a new first for me.

The new flat TDI engine
The new flat TDI engine
Gabriele Tarquini is not in his usual steed but a minibus showing me the way to drive a newly built – well nearly built – circuit in North Spain. The undulations of Circuito de Castelolli, just outside Barcelona, are breathtaking - picture the Nordschliefe set in a figure of eight with slightly wider tarmac. It is the circuit you always wanted to build with Scalextric and funnily enough Scalextric is stickered onto the car I am about to have my first in.

There seems to be a diesel revolution speared by the masterminds of VAG in Germany and not only is the Le Mans winner a diesel but so is the current World Touring Car Championship victor, the WTCC SEAT Leon. And this TDI is sitting silently on the cold tarmac waiting to prove that the derv stuff is a good weapon for track fun.

I have always been pure of heart when it comes to race machines – and to some extent for road work too. I am not sure where this pureness comes from, but the list is simple: petrol engine, rear wheel drive and manual transmission. Anything else is the equivalent of doing a jig on Fangio’s grave. The only reason for a diesel to clutter a race venue is with a trailer attached to it.

What do all these buttons do again?
What do all these buttons do again?

I settle into the SEAT and strap in tightly, all my preconceptions of what this would feel like to drive are running through my head: quiet, front-heavy, lots of low down torque. I fire up the 2-litre turbo diesel while the engineers do their last checks through the car and I am greeted by a strange noise. Someone seems to have wrongly wired the start button to a generator, or the engineers have decided to erect a bouncy castle just out of my vision. The air jacks are retracted, the car gracefully falls back to earth and I get a thumb up – the gurgling, bumbling noise must be the engine then.

I engage the clutch, pull back on the sequential shift and slowly move off into this brave new world. As the pit lane speed limit ends I extend my right foot and suddenly the car transforms. The torque low down jolts you in the back and even though the engine is at 2,000 rpm the car accelerates away instantaneously. This controllable and immediate acceleration gives you great confidence in knowing how the engine will behave. A nanosecond later it has all gone and a glowing set of lights are flashing at me urgently to do something.

On the rev limiter again
On the rev limiter again
The power band and rev limitations of the engine suddenly become very noticeable as I spend the next few moments pulling back on the gear stick to move up the Hewland sixspeed ‘box. I seem to be spending most of the time selecting gears with my right hand while my left does all the steering. I am suddenly glad that the custom to greet people is a right handed one or else Tarquini would have broken me with his presumably massive left arm muscles.

A combination of low down torque and constant gear shifts requires a change in style through the twists and turns of Circuito de Castelolli. Your mind has to add a gear to every corner, selecting one gear lower than you would normally think is appropriate.

In the first few corners you find yourself accelerating through the apex only to run out of engine. It takes a little getting use to, but when sorted you realise the acceleration performance the diesel has over the more traditional petrol cars is huge. Most noticeably is the instant pull out of the hairpin where this car gets the power down and fires you off down the next straight – this is like no other car I have been in.

A nearly finished circuit
A nearly finished circuit

The exit speed of the car is not only down to the engine, but the SEAT engineers have been very clever with the whole front-end of the car. In fact they have been so clever I am not allowed to look at the front suspension or engine, let alone take any photos of it. The witchcraft has tried to combat the heaviness of the diesel and the massive instant torque to get it working through the front wheels.

As I turn into a fast left then right sweep of bends it's clear they have done an amazing job. The car feels very poised and doesn’t have the inclination to try and continue straight into the scenery. The front-end still feels a smidgeon heavier than its petrol equivalent but only slightly do you notice it washing out when trying to turn into a corner.

Braking is where this car differs greatly to a petrol race car. With such a low-revving engine you suddenly become totally dependant on the 332mm steel vented discs at the front of the car. I am used to a combination of engine braking and the pedal, combining a bit of heel and toe to get the max performance out of slow down.

There is no little jolt as the gearbox down shifts into the new gear - it is all very consistent and easy using just one pedal to do all the work. As the laps go on this makes stopping a much more consistent affair without the worry of snatching a gear too early.

Por favor, digalo mas despacio
Por favor, digalo mas despacio
As my last lap comes to an end I reflect back on the noise of this diesel machine and the most emotive point of the Leon TDI. Racing should be a loud affair; the soundtrack of high revving engines is all part of the sensation experienced at a circuit. The noise of the car from inside - as it powers through the narrow rev band - is still rewarding but it doesn’t sing to you like a petrol engine does.

It is noisier than I expected it to be before sitting in the car but it doesn’t talk to you. You rely heavily on flashing lights in front for when to change gear and not by engine note – and I would imagine with radio communications and ear plugs you would be hard pushed to hear it anyway.

I step out of the car and bump into Yvan Muller, the current WTCC champion and SEAT’s number one driver, and I ask him how he finds the TDI compared to petrol. 'You always have to adapt to cars, one day I could be driving a V8 supercar and the next racing on ice – though the difference between diesel and petrol is great.'

Yvan Muller WTCC Champion
Yvan Muller WTCC Champion
Is it better then, I ask. 'If you look at the sector times of us compared to the BMW, the BMW was quicker on many tracks; it's just we did all our quick sector times on the same lap. We worked better as a team through the season. If the diesel is so good, why aren’t the other manufacturers creating them too?'

The WTCC seems to provide plenty of competition. You could easily predict one winner from three for F1, one from maybe two for WRC, but WTCC it could be any of 11 or more drivers.

It is a fiercely competitive discipline and one that SEAT has managed to conquer with something different. Though my purist heart still wants to hear high-revving petrol engines creating lots of noise, the car they have created is undeniably great. Though it is the first winning diesel in WTCC, I doubt it will be the last if they are all this good.

Author: RacingPete