SEAT León Cupra R, Mallory Park Sprint
by David Finlay (22 June 2011)
I can't remember exactly when it happened, but it was probably as I was taking the León Cupra R round the Rockingham race circuit for the purposes of our launch review that I began to wonder how effective SEAT's most powerful production car would be in proper competition. Amid a barrage of hissy fits, threats of personal violence and occasionally just asking nicely, SEAT was persuaded to wonder the same thing.
The upshot of the above was that last Saturday I arrived at Mallory Park in Leicestershire from one direction, and from another came the León in the hands of that diamond geezer Andy Hill, who had kindly agreed to prepare the car, take photos of it and video it (the difficult bits) and leave the driving (the easy bit) to me.
Most of what was going on at Mallory was the Classic Touring Car Racing Club's 2011 Autoglym Classic Festival race meeting, for which the León would not have been eligible. As a sort of prelude to this event, though, the CTCRC (whose officials, from my brief acquaintance with them, seem to be a notably friendly and helpful bunch of people) also ran a sprint, which involves running one at a time against the clock.
Completely standard cars like the León are allowed to compete in sprints, so that's what we did. The only preparation involved was to stick competition numbers on the doors (fabricated, by Andy, from masking tape, since the proper numbers I'd ordered didn't arrive in time) and rig up a strut at the front (Andy again) to cut the timing beams at the start and finish lines.
Mallory Park, if you don't know it, is a delightful little circuit which in its most regularly-used form is not particularly technical but jolly fast. For sprints, three chicanes are added, making it more technical and slower. You can see what's involved on the circuit map here, and it's also worth mentioning that a sprint run takes up less than a full lap, starting in the pit lane and finishing halfway round the Devil's Elbow.
There had been heavy rain the night before this event, and plenty of evidence was still there first thing in the morning. My first practice run was therefore a bit rubbish, since I nearly spun at the Edwina's chicane (because it was slippier there than I'd expected) and almost came to a standstill before Shaw's Hairpin (because it was bone dry there and I could have braked much later).
There was also the problem that I'd never tried to drive a Cupra R flat-out before. I'd pushed fairly hard at Rockingham, but competition driving is on a different level, and at Mallory the León's road-going set-up was very obvious. The most notable evidence of it was the roll understeer, which is barely detectable on the public highway but made me think for a long time that I would never be able to get round Gerard's - the extremely long right-hander at the start of the lap - on full throttle.
As Andy will tell you, I was in a grumbly sort of mood after that run, but in retrospect a time of 73.01 seconds wasn't too bad, and certainly showed how much potential the car had even if the driver wasn't doing particularly well. The second practice run took 70.31 seconds, but the improvement in elapsed time was less important than the extra information I'd gained on what was now (and would stay) a dry track.
Neither of those runs counted towards the results. The faster of the next two, known as "competition runs", would do that. The first went pretty well: Gerard's still wasn't flat, but I was lifting off more gently and the balance was better, and there were no real problems at the first two chicanes.
This was very much not the case at the final chicane I went a bit wild through there and came out on two wheels. The traction control system didn't like that, and refused to let the engine to produce any more power until it was good and ready. And once that had been sorted, what did I do but muff the change up into third gear. Gah!
As you can imagine, I wasn't expecting the time to be up to much on that one, but in fact it was the best yet at 69.09 seconds. "We could call that a moral 68, couldn't we?" I asked Andy hopefully, and he graciously agreed that we perhaps could.
One more run to go. A good start - I'd discovered that the Cupra R needs quite a lot of revs off the line, otherwise the electronics will make the engine bog down - and then something unexpected happened. I'd been annoyed at not being able to get round Gerard's without lifting, even though I'd had to accept that the car wouldn't do it, but as I turned into it on this run I suddenly thought, "Hold on, who's in charge round here? I'll decide if we can get round here on full throttle." So this time I didn't lift, and the car stayed in better balance than it had previously, and the ESP came in when it decided it needed to (just short of maximum revs in third gear), and it all happened quickly and without fuss. If only I'd thought of that before.
This was the start of what I later described on Twitter as the "crazy nutter son of a bitch" run. Here it is:
I'm not very proud of it, to be honest. I needed to do it, but I should have done it earlier in the day, leaving open the opportunity for at least one more run with the same commitment but - I would hope - more finesse. If I'd gone out again and been a bit more clever under braking, I might have managed a low 68 rather than, as I did, a 68.62. Still, that's what makes sprinting such an intense sport, and one that I strongly recommend you should try some time.
I mentioned that you can enter a standard car in a sprint. At Mallory there were three classes for them, divided by engine size, but the León was the only thing entered in any of them. (Not sure why. At a similar event in March there were nearly a dozen.)
Now, the great thing about sprinting is that you can just compete against yourself, as it were, but for fun I paid attention to what was going on in other classes - or at least ones open to cars which, though modified, were still road-legal, and ignoring specialist sports cars. By far the quickest of this notional opposition was Andrew Cotterill's Subaru Impreza, which got into the low 65s, while Andy Gay's BMW M3 CSL and Simon Hutchinson's Ford Focus WRC - both producing over 300bhp to the Leon's 262bhp - were solidly in the 66s.
All three were 10% faster through the finish line speed trap than the León, and there's no way of catching that up, though the fact that they were less than 10% faster round the whole lap suggests that the León was hanging on pretty well through the corners.
Alan Mugglestone recorded a 68.62 in his Mazda MX-5, and James Kerr was slightly faster in his Peugeot 205 GTi. Both cars were non-standard, but they didn't seem to be extravagantly modified either (certainly not enough to be producing 262bhp) so I ought to raise my hat to both drivers for fine performances. And I would, too, if I had a hat.
The really interesting thing to was to see which cars were slower than the León. They made up a gratifyingly long list including a John Cooper Works MINI, several proper racers (on slick tyres and everything) and no fewer than eight modern TVRs. I'm sure none of the drivers could care less about this, and I'm equally sure they had just as much fun as I did. But it did show that, in exactly the form you can buy it from your local SEAT dealer, the León Cupra R can double as a fine road-going hot hatch during the week and a thoroughly decent competition car at weekends.