How we nearly killed a 300hp Seat Leon Cupra
Getting cocky can lead to severe bruising of the ego... and the coccyx
Some things just don’t mix. Water and electricity, skiing and the Caribbean, Clarkson and Morgan - they should all remain mutually exclusive. As I sat in the warmth of the heated cockpit and observed my frigid Alpine surroundings, though, I couldn’t help but think that ‘hot hatchback’ and ‘ice’ should be added to that list.
Through the windscreen, all I could see was a white wilderness. The horizon was a jagged line of ice-sculpted stone peaks, while evergreen fir trees and rose defiantly from the earth’s frosty mantle. The only signs of life came from the handful of typical Tyrolean houses that dotted the frozen landscape.
Standing to my left, Jordi Gene, Seat’s works racing driver, looked on with an amused look on his face - or at least the bit of it I could see. To combat the sub-zero temperatures, the Spaniard had a bobble hat pulled down to his eyebrows and his stubbled chin buried in the collar of his thick jacket.
Although his eyes darted around, taking in his surroundings, his feet never moved an inch - and though I knew why, it had been a painful lesson. Beneath the thin soles of his lightweight leather boots, there was nothing but sheet ice.
Even though I’d come prepared for the weather, my technical SAS-spec boots still couldn’t grip the ground, and one less-than-careful step had left me flat on my backside. Yet even though I could hardly stand up, I was expecting the car to work. And I wasn’t just hoping to make it move, but to push it to its limits.
Dotted around the flat ice before me, Jordi had laid out a series of traffic cones, creating a kind of gymkhana-style auto test. First up was a tight slalom, followed by a wide, sweeping right-hand hairpin and a quick wiggle of 90-degree corners before another sweeper. At every turn, the six-foot snowbanks seemed ludicrously close to the cones, leaving little room for error.
And if I did make a mistake, I’d be breaking a pretty costly piece of kit. The Seat Leon Cupra ST 300 is essentially a Volkswagen Golf R Estate with a sharper suit and a Spanish badge. It’s a track-bred hot hatchback with a 5.7-second 0-62mph time and a £32,580 list price.
True, it came with a complex four-wheel-drive system and this one had been fitted with deep-tread winter tyres, but surely it would struggle to transmit its 296bhp might to the ice?
As if in protest at my train of thought, the 2.0-litre turbocharged powerplant gurgled and growled menacingly, plumes of steam rising from its tailpipes like smoke from a dragon’s nostrils. I looked to Jordi, whose eyes scanned the course for a second before he let me off the leash with a nod of his head.
I checked the traction control system was completely switched off, then slammed my right foot down into the firewall. The engine roared, gorging itself on a heady mix of petrol and air, but the car didn’t move an inch.
My eyes danced around the cockpit, searching for a problem - a warning light or an error message on the digital display - but to no avail. Then, for some unknown reason, I took my right hand away from the steering wheel and rested it on the gear lever. Which was still in ‘park’...
Jordi’s eyes lit up, and beneath his thick collar I knew he was smiling - laughing at me. Ego well and truly bruised, I wrenched the lever back into ‘drive’ and gunned the throttle once more. This time, four white rooster tails shot out behind me as the wheels span and the car slithered forwards, its tyres scrabbling through the dusty layer of snow that covered the ice.
A Swedish rally driver once told me that the key to driving on loose or low-friction surfaces is to slide the car, but not too much. As soon as the drift angle exceeds 27 degrees, it’ll slow you down.
With that warning in mind, I tried to keep the car on a tight leash through the slalom section of the course, lifting off the power to get the weight onto the front tyres, turning in and feathering the throttle to bring the tail around before repeating the process for the next corner.
The walkie talkie lodged into the cupholder crackled into life.
“Good,” said a distorted and somewhat surprised voice that may or may not have been Jordi’s.
Of course, that was the moment where it all went wrong. Buoyed by my success and the surprising quantity of grip the winter tyres were providing, I upped the ante, lifting off less and becoming more judicious in my application of power. The consequences were inevitable.
The final gate of the slalom course drew close, and I gave the Leon a liberal dose of throttle to swing the tail around before I entered the first, sweeping right-hander. The big boot dutifully stepped out, but then the surface changed and the powdery snow vanished, leaving the brilliant blue ice exposed. The deep-tread winter tyres lost purchase, and the front end simply washed away from me, as if the wheels were simply ignoring any inputs from the helm.
Knowing that braking could result in expensive consequences, I just lifted my foot off the power slightly and reduced my steering inputs, but it was futile. The snowy bank loomed, and I braced myself for the prospect of a 50km/h impact with a six-foot-tall white wall.
The lumpy, unwelcoming ice filled the windscreen, but as I approached, the car slowed, a snowy patch clinging to the wheels and bringing the car to an ignominious halt, its number plate just inches from the frozen wall.
Fuming at my own arrogance and incompetence, I reversed away from the snowdrift that had so nearly spelt disaster, while the walkie talkie again sparked up.
“Ah,” said the crackling, slightly inhuman voice from the cupholder. “If you don’t have studded tyres, you need to take a wider line through that corner so the front wheels go through the snow and have grip.”
I fumed at the lack of warning and my own incompetence. Having been at the top of the game and a legend in my own lunchtime I’d fallen from grace in an almost incredibly spectacular way.
Thankfully, motorsport - and indeed any sport - has the curious habit of allowing you to redeem yourself almost immediately. As I swept past Jordi to begin my second lap, the Cupra’s tail sliding through a graceful arc and splashing snow at my tutor’s feet, the inhuman voice once more came over the airwaves.
I could almost see the amusement in Jordi’s eyes as the voice said a simple, almost grudging “very good”.