Seat Cordoba WRC history and technical infos

Seat, a Spanish manufacturer, has changed hands many times during the last decades. Initially independent, manufacturing cars under license from Fiat, the company was bought by the Italian giant which sold it to the Volkswagen group in the early 90s. The company lacks the prestigious past of some of the other major contenders in the WRC but has recently proven its determination to make a name for itself in the, now heartless and mercantile, world of rallying.

Seat’s first serious attempt at a World Rallying title was burdened on the small Ibiza, a 1,6lt normally aspirated front wheel drive car with its roots in the Volkswagen Golf. The Ibiza allowed the company to start building its rallying experience and was officially engaged in some European national championships. The years went by and little success followed until a 2lt version of the Ibiza (picture here) was homologated as a kit-car and extra large tracks, wheels, brakes, everything, were fitted to it as the FIA kit-car regulations allow. With these attributes the car made it to be the three times the 2lt World Champion (’96, ’97, ’98) proving its maker had accumulated enough experience, and budgets, to take a chance at the reign category, the WRC class of rallying cars. By that time the Seat group had tightly integrated the VAG group of companies and, although some creative liberty was given to it by its powerful owner, most mechanical parts fitted in Seat cars were direct descendents of VAG parts. Management policies within the group were also “Germanized” and the once “oh well…” Spanish team was replaced by rigorous German administration and precision. The VAG group invested a lot of money after its take over of the small Spanish manufacturer and clearly intended to make this a fruitful investment.

Seat’s three conquests of the 2lt FIA title and the sport’s popularity in Spain probably convinced VAG management to go further and allocate sufficient budgets to the Seat Sport department so as to allow it a chance to reach its goal. This situation came to a sad ending in September 2000 when the company’s, German, upper management revoked its decision, and budgets, forcing Seat Sport to retire from the World Rally Championship. The absence of convincing results must have certainly helped the management’s decision.

Seat’s project to build a WRC car was officially announced during the 1997 San Remo rally. It was in 1998 that the Cordoba WRC was first enrolled by the company to compete at the highest level of WRC racing. The Cordoba was based on the family sedan of the same name but was, naturally, a WRC class car. It had a 4 cylinder turbocharged engine, full time 4 wheel drive and active differentials were involved in its transmission. Unlike other WRC cars however the Cordoba is not an example of equilibrium. The car’s wheelbase was too short compared to its length and this resulted in important overhangs front and rear that were inducing a significant amount of inertia. To make things worst the Cordoba engine was placed too high and too in front of the front wheel’s axle resulting in important understeer and a heavy front that was putting out of balance the rest of the car. Seat applied FIA WRC regulations to the maximum regarding the engine position in the Cordoba WRC compared to the base Cordoba model, these regulations allow moving the engine by a maximum of 20mm, but even that proved insufficient to allow the car to handle with less understeer. Such shortcomings in a car’s behavior can, usually, be blanked by applying the appropriate suspension settings. A fine balance between damper/spring/anti-roll bar stiffness, differential settings and suspension angles has to be found. During the 1999 season Seat Sport tried to sort the car out but, although the team and its drivers, the Finns Harri Rovanperä and young Toni Gardemeister, were talented and very motivated, they lacked the experience and references to other cars necessary to accomplish this fine balance. The Cordoba WRC did achieve some remarkable results during that season but they were mainly due to other competitor’s troubles. By August 1999 a new evolution of the Cordoba WRC appeared. It was dictated by the commercial version’s uplift and changes compared to the initial car were minute. The Cordoba WRC Evo 2 had a new turbocharger, different fascia design, reworked suspension settings, improved engine bay air flow and remapped injection settings amongst other evolutions but, unfortunately, all these were insufficient to cure the car’s tendency for understeer.

Things were to change for the team and car by late 1999 when one of the most experienced WRC drivers around signed a 2 year contract with the Spanish manufacturer. Didier Auriol 1994 World Champion with more than 18 victories on his account was exactly the person Seat needed to allow the Cordoba to enter the top contenders for the WRC title.

There’s not much that is revolutionary about the Cordoba WRC. The team, lead by Spaniard Jaime Puig, an ex-racing driver himself, opted for largely field-proven solutions and initially targeted reliability rather than speed. That proved to be a wise choice since it allowed Seat Sport to accumulate experience and allowed their car to finish almost all the rallies to which it took part. The car’s technical specification can be found here. You can also find pictures of the Cordoba Evo 2 shot at the 1999 Finnish rally here and those shot at the 2000 Acropolis rally starting here. The main problems with the Cordoba WRC are, first that it shares too many technical solutions with its predecessor, the Ibiza 2lt kit car and second that the whole project lacks homogeneity, too many companies are providing parts for the car and it is difficult to integrate them to one, coherent, whole. But let us look into detail how the car is made.

The Cordoba’s engines are prepared for racing at Daniel Snobeck’s workshop in France under the direction of chief engineer Serge Meyer.

The engines have proved reliable so far but seemed to lack power during the 1999 season. Seat and Snobeck were planning a major injection/ignition remap for the 2000 season in order to render the engine more useable in low to middle rev speeds were it is most solicited by the sport’s specifics. The fact the engine lacks low end torque could only be expected because the Snobeck team’s experience is mainly related to track racing, turbocharged engines where low end torque is not as important as it is in rallying.

Seat Sport’s facilities in Abrera Spain (at 30Km of Barcelona) are very well equipped to perform extensive engine test and tuning, the total staff allocated to the project being just over 100 persons. The base engine used to develop the WRC version comes from the commercial Cordoba SX2.0 16V launched in spring 1997. What’s amazing is that this unit has been dropped from the Seat’s commercial version to be replaced by the VW 1.8lt 20V turbo engine! The 2lt unit that serves as a base for the WRC engine dates back to the early days of the VW take over of Seat and is home designed and made by the Spanish manufacturer. Anyone remember VW’s marketing plot of the “Design by Porsche” logos at the time? Basically it’s the engine that allowed Seat to win three successive 2lt championships in is normally aspirated version to which the Spaniards added the advanced Garrett turbocharger and moderately altered bore and stroke. The biggest problem in this department comes from the engine’s position in the car. The inlet side faces the front of the car and this forced Seat to fit the turbocharger on the hot side of the engine compartment. In the Ibiza kit car, where the engine was also placed in the same way, this was not a major issue due to the lack of a turbocharger. In the Cordoba WRC however the temperatures reached inside the engine bay is significantly higher. Additionally the compressed air coming out of the turbocharger has to travel quite some distance within the engine bay before reaching the inlet manifold and, naturally, gets heated on the way thus lowering the overall efficiency.

The car’s suspension is based on a classic McPherson strut including lower wishbones front and rear. The dampers used come from the renowned specialist Öhlins (Mitsubishi RalliArt also use Öhlins dampers on the Lancer Evolutions) and are fully adjustable for ride height, compression/rebound and speed relative damping. Seat had to use rear McPherson struts since the base Cordoba model uses them too and WRC regulation prohibit radical suspension geometry changes. One of the car’s handling problems, the chronic understeering, could have been cured or at least lessened much easier had the rear suspension been based on a multilink layout for instance.

The transmission of the Cordoba WRC is based on a transversally mounted 6 speed sequential gearbox whose pinion and shafts origin is traced back to the British specialist Hewland while the complete box is assembled by Prodrive! Seat Sport are customizing the shift command and gear ratios as well as they are reworking the gear kits themselves but still the car would certainly benefit from a more adequate gearbox mounted longitudinally like in other WRC cars such as the Ford Focus or Peugeot 206. A longitudinally mounted box would allow for a better mass distribution and would lower the weight on the front axle making the car handle more neutrally. Certainly Seat’s new ambitions will eventually lead them to redesign the box by allocating the, extremely high, budgets necessary to the operation. This will however require a new homologation sheet and no such demand has reached the FIA for 2000 consequently no such box will be be fitted during the 2000 season. Note that a similar gearbox was used in the Ibiza kit car…As of the Catalunya 2000 rally the Cordoba uses a joystick operated gearbox (like the “old” Toyota Corolla WRC) that controls electronic circuitry which, in turn, operates the gear changes through hydraulic circuits.

While the first release of the Cordoba WRC was using a front and center active differentials and a mechanical rear one, the  Evo 2 used three active differentials right from its appearance. Most other cars go through a period during which they use one or two such devices in order to allow the engineers to fine tune the car’s handling. In the Cordoba’s case the Seat team opted for the use of three active differentials most probably to force a more neutral character to the car’s natural understeering. Active differentials allow much more parameters to enter their locking characteristic and torque distribution than mechanical ones and can, thus, modify radically a car’s handling. Ideally a WRC car should be developed based on mechanical differentials and only make the transition to active ones once the car’s handling has been sorted out. That was obviously not the case for Seat’s entry and the main reason to that was that the base car, the normal Cordoba sedan, was not the best car on which to build the WRC version. Not to say that either the base Cordoba or its WRC descendent are bad cars, absolutely not, the problem is that when you’re racing to the tenth of a second the smallest detail can cost precious seconds at the end of a stage. Things may have changed for the better when Seat was to release it new WRC car based on their brand new commercial model, the Seat Leon in late 2001 but, as mentioned earlier, the company withdrew from the World Rally Championship by the end of 2000.

The Cordoba WRC chassis is reinforced, equipped with a roll cage and prepared for racing by the French specialist Matter. As stated previously the base car was not the best choice Seat could have made to build a WRC car. The story behind the company’s choice of the Cordoba body is that of yet another classic FIA failure to apply their own rules. FIA WRC class rules state that a WRC car’s base model cannot be shorter than 4000mm. Seat would have liked to build their WRC car around an Ibiza base. That was unfortunately impossible since the Ibiza body would not comply with the FIA rule hence the Cordoba choice. The Cordoba body is too narrow to allow properly fitting all the required parts (i.e. central transmission tunnel, rear transmission, etc.) and its wheelbase is too short compared to its length. These facts render the WRC car less drivable and compliant to driver input especially so in tight corner terrain. But that’s the FIA rule so Seat complied with it. Imagine now the company’s fury when one and a half years later the same FIA rules were transgressed by Peugeot who homologated the 206 as a WRC car. Note that the base 206 car is only 3835mm long!! and that the base Ibiza is 3855mm long. Of course Peugeot’s power is more dominant than that of a company like Seat…well done once again FIA! So Seat ended up with a car that is the longest of all other WRC cars (except the Skoda Octavia) but has the shortest wheelbase of them all, not the ideal architecture to win.

As you may have already guessed the Cordoba WRC E2, although not a bad concept in its whole, has not what it takes to beat more gifted adversaries. It is in this context that Didier Auriol signed his two year contract with Seat knowing well that a lot had to be done to allow the Cordoba to make its way to the top of the WRC hierarchy.

When Didier first tested the car, in late 1999, he immediately realized where the problems were and what the team had to do to fix them, or at least keep them from affecting the car’s handling. Didier is well known as one of the best “tuners” in the rallying world today and he surely can guide and motivate the whole team towards reaching their common goal, make a winner out of the current Cordoba while accumulating experience that will might have been used to build Seat’s next contender in the WRC the Leon. Among Didier‘s initial remarks regarding the tarmac version of the car were the following:

  • Reduce the front track width
  • Reduce the dumping factor of the dumpers
  • Use higher diameter, stiffer ant-roll bars to stabilize the car
  • Gain low end torque
  • Use different gear ratios
  • Use a higher ratio rack and pinion and render the steering lighter
  • Change the suspension angles and geometry

With these changes, for starters,  the evolutions and development that will surely follow and Didier Auriol behind its wheel the Cordoba WRC E2 will surely have it chance during the 2000 season, maybe not right from the start, at the terribly difficult Monte Carlo rally, but certainly at some point later in the season.
What will be even more difficult for Didier than straightening out the Cordoba is getting as familiar with the Pirelli tires as he was with the Michelins. Today a lot depends on the driver’s ability to choose the best fitted tires per stage. There are so many parameters a driver has to take into account to make his tire choice that the whole operation is promoted to a kind of dark science. It is not rare to see rally drivers (especially Carlos Sainz) wonder through the paddocks and service areas just to see what their competitor’s choice is. While Didier is one of the drivers that make the less tire choice mistakes, given his mastering of the Michelin range, Pirelli’s range is unknown territory to him. It will certainly take some time and erroneous choices before he’s able to choose tires as wisely as he did by the past.

Auriol’s teammate, young Toni Gardemeister, has shown unmistakable signs of enormous talent in the recent past. It is rare to see drivers, lacking extensive experience of the WRC, being equally fast on tarmac and gravel. Toni has had remarkable successes on both surfaces and this with the Cordoba WRC, a car which was not as developed as other contenders,  when he scored them. A third overall position in the 1999 New Zealand rally and a forth overall in the 2000 Monte Carlo rally are only there to testify of a brilliant career start.
Especially impressive was Toni’s performance on special stage 8 of the 2000 Monte Carlo rally. This was the event’s longest and most difficult stage with an overall length of more than 48Km. Toni hit a wall after only 3Km into the stage and seriously damaged his rear left suspension. He was able to run the rest of the stage scoring a 3rd overall time!!, only 12 seconds behind Tommi who nuked all other contenders except Carlos on this stage. Toni’s rear brakes were not functional and his rear left wheel was wobbling! Note that the wall Toni hit had been previously hit by Didier Auriol, Carlos Sainz and Tommi Mäkinen in earlier editions of the rally. All these drivers were eventually to become World Champions!

During the 2000 WRC season and especially after the 2000 Finnish rally where the first Didier Auriol defined version of the Cordoba, the E3, will appear the SEAT team will have reached the level of evolution and development that other major players have reached for their cars. The team might have had its chance to overall victories and to start building a name for itself in the merciless WRC world hadn’t it been forced to retire…

Seat Cordoba WRC: Learn more about this car

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