Seat Cordoba WRC: an unfinished story

The Seat Cordoba WRC was the culmination of the rallying experience the Spanish manufacturer accumulated since the 70s. Built after the success of the Ibiza kit car in the 2-Litre category, it was driven by some of the most promising drivers of the time, as well as by some of the most experienced. However, the lack of results, mainly due to poor reliability, as well as other powerful reasons determined the sudden end of the program. But its aero and rally performance is still well worth to review.

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H.Rovanperä/R.Pietiläinen, Seat Cordoba WRC, Rally Argentina 1999, ret.

History of Seat in rallying started as early as in 1971 when the Special Vehicle Department was created. The team started to compete in the Spanish Rally Championship in 1972, and only some months later Salvador Cañellas (a former motorcycle racer who had been the first Spaniard racer to win a Grand Prix) obtained the first win at the wheel of Seat 124 1.6 in the RACE Rally. In the next years, the team won some of the most important events in the National Championship. Such good results encouraged the manufacturer to try in some events of the World Rally Championship, such as the Rally of Portugal in 1975 or the Rallye Monte Carlo in 1976.

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A.Zanini/J.Petisco, Seat 124 Especial 1800, Rallye Monte Carlo 1977, 3rd

The first remarkable result came in the (dramatic) edition of 1977 of the Rallye Monte Carlo when only 45 out of 198 teams reached the finish line. Antonio Zanini and Salvador Cañellas ended in a surprising third and fourth position, at the wheel of their Seat 124 Sport, a model that was known as the taxicab, as that was the most popular taxi model in Spain in that years.

The team obtained its first international victories in different events of the European Rally Championship, in which Antonio Zanini was second in 1976 (behind Bernard Darniche and his Lancia Stratos HF) and in 1979 (behind Jochi Kleint and his Opel Ascona). But in 1980 the company entered into a serious economic crisis and FIAT (an ally of SEAT and engineering supplier since its foundation) decided to leave, which forced the closure of the Competition Department. Thanks to the initiative of Vicenç Aguilera, Manager of the Technical Center, Seat Sport was created, as a continuation of the Special Vehicle Department, in 1985 in Abrera. It was the moment for Seat to be back in competition, although only two days later that announcement, VW acquired Seat (and Seat Sport).

But it was not until the second part of the nineties when the Spanish manufacturer decided to try again in the World Rally Championship. Again starting from one of the more popular models of its range, the Seat Ibiza.

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E.Webber/M.Hiemer, Seat Ibiza GTi 16v, Rally Portugal 1995, 22nd

The first big result was obtained in the Rally Portugal 1995 when Erwin Webber drove a Seat Ibiza 1.8 16v gr. A to the third position in the 2-Litre category, while in the Acropolis Webber and Antoni Rius completed the first 1-2 of the manufacturer, in the same category. In 1996, the introduction of the Ibiza kit car allowed the team to obtain their first world title (2L), in a very tight competition with Skoda that was only decided in the Rally of Great Britain.

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E.Webber/M.Hiemer, Seat Ibiza kit car, Rally of Great Britain 1996, 9th

After such a success, the decision to build a WRC was taken in early 1997. The plan was to take part in some events in 1998, in order to prepare the team for fighting for victories in 1999 and for the world title in 2000 and 2001. In the meantime, a succession of six victories in the 2-Litre category ensured the 97 title for the team already in Sanremo. During the celebration, the team announced to the press their intention to build the WRC car within one year, to start competing in the top WRC category, as the only European manufacturer in that years (until the arrival of Peugeot and Skoda in 1999).

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O.Gómez/M.Martí, Seat Ibiza kit car Evo2, Rally Safari 1998, ret.

While part of the team was devoted to the preparation of the new car, the rest of the team kept working with the Seat Ibiza kit car. However, they also collaborated in the development of the new car, by taking part for their first time in the Rally Safari in 1998, to get experience for the coming years. At the end of the season, Seat obtained its third title in a row, in the 2-Litre category. It was a nice prize for a team effort that involved such a bunch of excellent drivers during those years, such as Harri Rovanperä, Chus Puras, Toni Gardemeister, Oriol Gómez, Bruno Thiry,  Mia Bardolet, Gwyndaf Evans or even Salvador Cañellas jr, son of the Seat driver in the 70s.

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O.Gómez/M.Martí, Seat Ibiza kit car Evo2, Rallye Catalunya 1998, 15th

When the team got the approval to build the new car some important question marks arose: although the decision was to develop all design in the Technical Center of Seat in Martorell, the team was short of resources and they had no experience in full traction systems (as Seat hadn’t then any commercial 4WD model). But the main issue was that the Ibiza was too short to become the base car of the WRC, while the Seat Toledo was in transition into a new platform, and the new base car (Seat Leon) was still to be defined. So, the decision was to build the WRC car from the Cordoba, a sedan derived from the Ibiza. It is understandable the deception in the Spanish team when only a few months later, Peugeot was allowed to participate with a model shorter than the Ibiza, the 206, although artificially enlarged to fit into the minimal length required.

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Seat Cordoba WRC prototype

The Cordoba was too long (with excess overhangs at both ends) and heavy, with a poor weight distribution (as the engine was located too ahead and too elevated) and a too short suspension travel. The WRC car was built in a very short period of time, with Seat acquiring or subcontracting the development of the main parts of the car to different suppliers: Snobeck for the engine, Prodrive for the four-wheel transmission, Hewland for the gear-box or Matter Motorsport for the car body.

Ex-Citroën Sport Benoit Bagur was charged with the WRC project since the beginning as Chief Engineer, with the aid of Seat engineers Jaume Xifré, Enric Pons and Ignacio Bultó. Vicenç Aguilera (president) and Jaume Puig shared responsibilities at Seat Sport Management, while Antonio Rodríguez continued as Team Manager.

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Seat Cordoba WRC, test unit, July 1999

The car was based on the road car model Cordoba SX 2.0 16v. The design of the car front and cooling system was based on the results of the tests the team developed in the autumn of 1997, for two days, in one of the 10 wind tunnels of the Institut Aérotechnique (Saint-Cyr-l’École, Paris), under the lead of Jaume Xifré, ex-Selex monocoque designer. The resulting design included a central big air inlet, plus the typical intake in-between headlamps for the engine bay. In the front bumper, another couple of inlets for brake cooling was incorporated outside the fog lamps, together with an air vent on both sides, to send hot air from the engine bay to the sides of the car, ahead of the front wheels.

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M.Duez/L.Manset, Seat Cordoba WRC, Rallye Sanremo 1998, 16th

The main innovation introduced by Seat in terms of aerodynamics was an additional lip on both sides of the front splitter, probably to minimize undercar airflow onto front wheels, while it was sent to the car sides, upwards, thanks to the shape of the external part of the lip.  Due to its prominence and location, it was often damaged or lost in rough terrains, such as Greece, Argentina, Kenya or New Zealand.

The Cordoba WRC included side skirts and extended wheel arches, as well a big rear wing. For the design of the wing, the team selected one of the wing profiles developed by Enrico Benzing, an Italian aerodynamics engineer and journalist who calculated a series of different wing profiles in the search of the most appropriate aerodynamic characteristics for racecar purposes. Many of the profiles he proposed, included in his excellent book Ali – Wings, have been widely used (and still are) in F1 and other racecar specialities.  The wing selected by Seat was positioned at a high angle of attack on its rear part (which also contributed to drag increase) together with a wicker below, both with the objective of generating downforce in the rear of the car….but at a high drag cost.

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Seat Cordoba WRC rear wing

The car was officially presented in May 1998 in the Oporto Car Show, painted with the company’s distinctive Bengala yellow color. The first version of the Cordoba WRC was completed by the end of June 1998, only nine months after the announcement in Sanremo. Marc Duez and Oriol Gómez were charged with the development test programme, which consisted in two test series at Chateau Lastours (France) in July, in preparation of its first appearance, in the Rally Finland.

Due to the short preparation, the team took its participation in the four events of the 1998 season as a preparation for the next season, when podium results were expected. And the results confirmed the nature of the participation.

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O.Gómez/M.Martí, Seat Cordoba WRC, Rally Finland 1998, ret.

With Harri Rovanperä as team leader, and Oriol Gómez/Marc Martí (later codriver of Carlos Sainz, Dani Sordo or recently Nil Solans), Marc Duez/Luc Manset and Gwyndaf Evans/Howard Davies sharing the second car, the 1998 events allowed the team to prepare the car under different conditions. So, the tarmac version of the car was refined in the Catalan circuit of Calafat, in preparation of Rallye Sanremo.

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Seat Cordoba WRC, test in Calafat circuit (Tarragona, Spain), 1998

The best result of the season came with the sixth position of Rovanperä in the Rally of Great Britain. The car proved to be reliable, but performance was still far from the competence, as it could be expected from a rookie team.

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H.Rovanperä/R.Pietiläinen, Seat Cordoba WRC, Rally of Great Britain 1998, 6th

For the 1999 season, the team searched for an experienced driver to help develop the car and to complement the youth and potential of Rovanperä, and they found it in the figure of Piero Liatti, who joined the team. Liatti’s incorporation was judged to be a mistake by his (until then) codriver Fabrizia Pons (ex-Michèle Mouton codriver), so the pair broke up and Carlo Cassina replaced Fabrizia as Liatti codriver. The Rallye Montecarlo confirmed the evolution of the car as both drivers set interesting results in several stages: Rovanpera was fastest in the second pass on the Col de Turini stage and second in the Ruissans – Eygalayes stage, while Liatti was second in Sisteron and third in Entrevaux – St. Pierre. Liatti and Rovanpera ended in sixth and seventh position, obtaining the first points for the team in the season starter.

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P.Liatti/C.Cassina, Seat Cordoba WRC, Rallye Monte Carlo 1999, 6th

In Sweden, the team recruited a snow expert of the size of the big Marcus Grönholm…. but fuel contamination problems in the second stage forced him to a soon retirement, while it costed 8 minutes to Rovanperä.

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M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Seat Cordoba WRC, Swedish Rally 1999, ret.

The team then carried out several tests in some of the roughest roads of Europe to better prepare the Rally Safari. The car was fitted with the distinctive front bull bars and air-intake pipe mounted on the A-pillar. Even so, the event put under a compromise the robustness of the car, as multiple problems (punctures, broken rims, suspension, brakes, power steering, engine overheating) affected both drivers. In spite of these issues, Rovanperä was able to finish in the sixth position while accumulating a lot of experience on the Kenyan stages.

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T.Gardemeister/P.Lukander, Seat Cordoba WRC, Rally New Zealand 1999, 3rd

Accidents in Portugal, Argentina and Greece and poor performance on tarmac in Catalonia and Corsica prevented the team from getting good results for the next months. Such misfortune turned into success when the team decided to give an opportunity to drive the Cordoba WRC to Toni Gardemeister in New Zealand, into the last event for the Evo1 car. He completed an excellent event, being the second fastest in three stages and finishing in a brilliant third position, which constituted the first podium of the team. It was one of the best driver debuts in the WRC and a nice goodbye to the car, as a new evolution was already prepared to be launched in Finland.

After one year taking part in the WRC, the team had identified most of the problems of the car, and the new evolution (named Evo2) was prepared to try to overcome most of these problems, with the engine refrigeration and the aerodynamics as some of the most critical. Apart from including the new image of the road car, the front bumper was significantly modified, as fog lamps were removed, brake cooling intakes were modified and side vents and front lips were removed. The final shape was more rounded, resulting in a lower drag.

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Comparative of the front bumper in Evo1 (top) and Evo2 (down) of the Seat Cordoba WRC

Also, the air vent on the bonnet was modified, as the grid was replaced by a black exit, while the NACA air inlet on the right side was removed. Another significant modification was introduced in the rear wing, as the original wing was replaced by a new one with a lower angle of attack, which significantly contributed to reducing the drag.

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Comparative of the rear wing in Evo1 (left) and Evo2 (right) of the Seat Cordoba WRC

rear comparative.jpgpictures by Petr Fitz – eWRC.cz

Comparative of the rear wing in Evo1 (up) and Evo2 (down) of the Seat Cordoba WRC

In preparation of the new evolution for Rally Finland, Harri Rovanperä took part in the Rally Channel Four 99 also in Finland, where he was able to give the Cordoba its first international win ahead of Kankkunen (Subaru WRC 2000) and his teammate Gardemeister (this time, driving a Toyota Corolla WRC).

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H.Rovanperä/R.Pietiläinen, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo2, Rally Channel Four 99, 1st

The debut of Cordoba WRC Evo2 in Finland was satisfactory, with Toni Gardemeister setting the fastest time in Hauhanpohja or the third fastest in the last stage, Ruuhimaäki, a TV-stage, kind of current powerstage, but giving points only for the Manufacturers Championship.

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T.Gardemeister/P.Lukander, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo2, Rally Finland 1999, 6th

In parallel to such good performances of the young Finn, Rovanperä was able to collect some points in the remaining gravel events, by finishing fifth in Finland and China or sixth in Australia. But his best result came in the last event of the year, by finishing third (his first podium ever) in the Rally GB, just some days after he was informed he was not going to continue with the team in the next season.

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H.Rovanperä/R.Pietiläinen, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo2, Rally of Great Britain, 3rd

For the season 2000, the main goal for the team was to recruit an even more experienced driver, to improve the car while contributing to the consolidation of Gardemeister as a top driver. Carlos Sainz was team’s first option, but once he refused (as he had been approached by Ford), Didier Auriol appeared as the best alternative, and the French driver quickly accepted Seat’s proposal. Once Toyota released him from his contract, he started a series of tests on tarmac to improve the car, in the first days of December 1999 in France (Jabron), while Gardemeister worked on the car on snow, in Lachens, also in France. Some weeks later, Gwyndaf Evans joined the team as a test driver, to complement the work carried out by the team official drivers.

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T.Gardemeister/P.Lukander, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo2, Rallye Monte Carlo 2000, 4th

The year started very well for Seat, as Toni Gardemeister surprised everybody by fighting for a podium position in his only second experience in Monte Carlo. He started the last day in the third position, to end up in a brilliant fourth, right behind Juha Kankkunen.

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D.Auriol/D.Giraudet, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo2, Rally Safari 2000, 3rd

The experience the team acquired in the last two years in Africa, together with the experimented driving of Auriol, paid off in the Rally Safari. The French driver set the best time in the first stage, allowing Seat to lead a rally of the World Championship for the first time ever. His final third position made grow the expectations of the Spanish team for the rest of the season.

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T.Gardemeister/P.Lukander, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo2, Rallye Catalunya 2000, ret.

But but the reality turned out to be very different. In spite of some good stage results, reliability problems combined with some accidents prevented the team from getting the expected results in the next events. Then, news arrived from the team that they were considering to build a new WRC car either from the Ibiza/Cordoba or from the new Leon, in order to align it since 2002.

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D.Auriol/D.Giraudet, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo2, Rally New Zealand 2000, ret.

As in previous years, Seat presented the new car evolution (Evo3) in Finland. The new car was lighter and included a modified front bumper, with an additional air intake on both sides of the intercooler and a higher portion of the lip made of rubber, in order to make it more resistant while corner cutting. No other modifications were introduced into the aero package.

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Seat Cordoba WRC Evo2 (up) and Evo3 (down) front bumper comparative

The material the bumper was made was modified, to make it more resistant to rough terrains. As in 1999, the intention was to test the car in a local Finn rally (Exide Ralli in this case), but Gardemeister destroyed the only car available some days before while testing, and the car could not be aligned until the Rally Finland.

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D.Auriol/D.Giraudet, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo3, Rally Finland 2000, 11th

In spite of some good stage results by Auriol, the car did not improve previous results and the French driver finished in 11th position. But the bad news came only two weeks later, when Seat suddenly announced the end of its participation into the WRC by the end of the season, due to a reorientation of Seat Sport business, after the replacement of the Seat CEO.

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D.Auriol/D.Giraudet, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo3, Rallye Sanremo 2000, 17th

Even so, the team continued working to refine the new evolution, but results in the next events continued to be very poor, with only a remarkable 6th position by Gardemeister in Australia, followed by Auriol in 8th.

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T.Gardemeister/P.Lukander, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo3, Rally Australia 2000, 6th

For the last participation in the WRC, in the Rally GB, Seat aligned four cars, giving the chance to Rovanperä and Gwyndaf Evans to drive the Cordoba WRC for the last time. The yellow cars ended in 9th (Auriol), 10th (Rovanperä) and 12th (Gardemeister), while Evans was forced to retiring due to mechanical issues.

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H.Rovanperä/R.Pietiläinen, Seat Cordoba WRC Evo3, Rally of Great Britain 2000, 10th

The poor results in the last year and the coincidence with Skoda in the WRC, both belonging to the VW group, forced the early retirement of Seat. Although previous results were good enough for a newcomer to the Championship (in a period when up to 8 manufacturers were involved), the decision taken by VW left the impression of an unfinished story….which maybe one day might continue, for the Spanish manufacturer.

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