Living with the Leon: Taking the Leon to the Limit
I've not kept my love for our Seat Leon secret, and neither has anyone else who's driven it. It's a real pleasure to chuck about, but lately I've been wondering what it's actually capable of when the rules of the road are relinquished for a damp runway. In Essex.
It didn't necessarily have to be Essex but that's where Car Limits is based, at North Weald Airfield. Car Limits principally concerns itself with teaching car control in your own vehicle, so whilst I'm usually a plodding pace car, or frantically chasing down far more powerful opposition in a David versus Goliath matchups, I felt it was time to give the plucky underdog an edge.
Performance driving schools all strive for an identical result but they get there through slightly varied methods; the focus of Car Limits is steering. This isn't simply about using the wheel, but understanding that the wheel, throttle, and brake are all equal parts of your turning armory, and that you can use combinations of the three to get different results. The majority of people understand the principles of oversteer and understeer, but there's nothing like experiencing both extremes in a safe and open environment. And it turns out you can induce wild amounts of oversteer in a front-wheel-drive car. Which was a lovely surprise.
The high-speed corner was a definite highlight, reaching speeds of 90 mph and chucking the Leon into the corner was great fun, and the demonstration of the balance and agility of the car was clear to see. However, I felt I wasn't taking as much part on the day as the car's engine control unit (ECU), and, as I was the one there to learn, I tried to turn everything off. Unfortunately, I discovered the electronic stability control (ESC) can never be turned fully off, only reduced to Sport ECU mode. And although that did kill the traction control, it had a nasty habit of applying the brakes whilst I was trying to balance the car through fast corners.
The aim was to avoid "the wall," a coloured change in tarmac, 90 degrees from the angle of turning, and not giving a great deal of room when approaching at speed. I found the temptation (thanks adrenaline) to yank the wheel and give it as much as possible (more wheel equals more turning, right?) was too tempting to resist, but I quickly discovered how that worked completely against me. The "finger test" of steering at over 70 mph round the corner using only an index finger on top of the wheel showed that minimal input is required, and that the wheel itself will talk to you and try and correct itself. The counter-intuitive knowledge that removing more lock will increase turning took a while to master as instinctively it doesn't feel right, but I got there in the end. After a few high-speed pileups into said wall, that is.
By the end of the day I was so much faster simply by being smoother, calmer, and, frankly, by doing less. I listened to the Seat, and it talked back and wanted to help me. It also wanted me to remove two cumulative months of service station wrappers from its rear seats, but that's not going to happen.
Early next year you should see our film of the Leon being thrown about and taking everything I aggressively threw at it in an astoundingly calm fashion. Might need to tone it down a tad next time it's full of kit with a cameraman hanging out the back. Just a thought.