WTCC SEAT Leon TDI


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.

Comments (66) Join the discussion on the forum

  • aarondrs 21 Feb 2009

    Its a very simple argument really. Of course the rules are scewed, how else do we get the manufacturers involved. However that said I believe in the interests of getting the best out of any engine type rule sshould be relaxed. If no turbos allowed that means no turbos, if they are allowed then petrol and diesel would have a level playing field. If you are allowed to drive fornt or rear whell drive then so be it. Don't negate the rear drivers advantage through weight penalties. Why would you? its nonsense. A front drive TDi 2.0 will never beat a front drive 2.0 petrol turbo (TPi) let alone one with rear drive.

    If these regulations were relaxed thus then the best car, engine and drive layout would win. Simple. As long as the basis was from that manufacturers standard parts then it would follow that the WTCC would be won by the best road cars.


  • H22K 20 Feb 2009

    Muzzlehatch said:
    . The great unwashed see a dag-dag win Le Mans and immediately think that diesels are "faster", when in fact that is not the case.
    Preposterous arguement. While you're at it you may as well complain that they see Audi and Peugeot in the top spots, therefore Audis must be the fastest cars on the road, and Peugeots the second fastest.

    People who choose cars based on things like that couldn't give a toss about Le Mans racing. It's not exactly an "everyman" motorsport..

    Personally I think it's the same situation as the A4 quattros storming BTCC about ten years ago. People hate anything different that appears to offer an advantage (of course, in the A4's case, weight penalties were added to the cars, and these were increased race by race until the pace advantage of the quattro was negated by the extra ballast).

    Could one not suggest that perhaps with a different character of engine blasting round the track, it'll make the petrol engined manufacturers start to look at how they can alter / improve the engines to compete effectively?

    As for the comments re Le Mans regs favouring diesels, I'm pretty sure the intake sizes are being restricted on the dervs this year along with a couple of other "reigning-in" rulings.

    Competition fuels innovation. Surely chucking diesels into the mix can only lead to better petrol and diesel technology?

    And finally...
    ffs quit the pathetic whigning "it's not fair it's not fair my favourite fuel isn't winning races and the rules are all biased towards the one I don't like and and and"

    would you listen to yourselves?

    Edited by H22K on Friday 20th February 09:32

  • sosidge 13 Feb 2009

    Dilemna said:
    And on the track diesel engines are are currently dominant as they don't use as much fuel as petrol engines so spend less time in the pits filling up.....
    In a race outright bhp power isn't everyting unless you are racing over such a short distance such as to get to the fuel pump. I read that Audi's V10 diesel engine they used for Le Mans does about 18mpg. The other traditional petrol mothers do like 2 mpg. eek 'Am I right? So that makes for a lot more fuel stops meaning slowing down from race pace, coming to a halt, refilling and restarting all costing valuable time.

    Is a hyrdrogen fuel cell car really a scam? How do you mean? Could you please explain? It seems a pretty good idea as hydrogen is so abundant in the atmosphere.

    Alex Dilemna.

    Edited by Dilemna on Friday 13th February 18:06


    Edited by Dilemna on Friday 13th February 18:07
    I think you are missing the point a little here. The story is about the Seat Leon WTCC car which does not refuel. It's power advantage (as described in the article) is mostly from the instant grunt at low revs, although it produces a similar amount of power to the petrol cars it produces more of it across a wider rev range.

    At Le Mans the refuelling time is an advantage, but the diesel cars are also setting the fastest laps in qualifying.

    In both classes the diesels are allowed benefits that petrol cars are not, including larger engine capacities, larger air intakes and forced induction.

    Hydrogen as a fuel is a non-starter as the energy required to manufacture, store and distribute it is unrealistically high.

  • XitUp 13 Feb 2009

    Did you not read the thread?
    The LM regs favor diesels, they can use bigger engines and restrictors. Not really fair is it?
    Although they do have to use smaller fuel tanks. Personally I would make all of these the same.

    Hydrogen might be the most abundant element, but it's very rarely not attached to something else. It takes more energy to get it (say, from splitting water) than you get back from burning it or using it in a fuel cell.
    Then there is the issue of transporting it and storing it. I'll to find you a good link to read.

    ETA: This is a pretty good one - http://www.planetforlife.com/h2/h2swiss.html

    Edited by XitUp on Friday 13th February 18:22

  • Dilemna 13 Feb 2009

    And on the track diesel engines are are currently dominant as they don't use as much fuel as petrol engines so spend less time in the pits filling up.....
    In a race outright bhp power isn't everyting unless you are racing over such a short distance such as to get to the fuel pump. I read that Audi's V10 diesel engine they used for Le Mans does about 18mpg. The other traditional petrol mothers do like 2 mpg. eek 'Am I right? So that makes for a lot more fuel stops meaning slowing down from race pace, coming to a halt, refilling and restarting all costing valuable time.

    Is a hyrdrogen fuel cell car really a scam? How do you mean? Could you please explain? It seems a pretty good idea as hydrogen is so abundant in the atmosphere.

    Alex Dilemna.

    Edited by Dilemna on Friday 13th February 18:06


    Edited by Dilemna on Friday 13th February 18:07

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