The Leon built to race is essentially the same as the one for sale in the showroom, says Anthony Peacock

At the recent Autosport International show, in Birmingham, racing drivers Jason Plato, James Thompson and Darren Turner met the machine they will be driving in this year's British Touring Car championship.

The all-new Seat Leon hit the UK roads in September last year, but this is the first time it will be raced here. The Leon touring car will do 0-60mph in about 4.1 seconds and corner at speeds that restrict blood flow to the brain.

On the minus side, it seats just one (two at a push) and is available only in a blue and yellow paint job reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. There's no air-con, and the radio only plays a team management channel. Spend too long in this and you'll be praying to get out. Trust me, I've done it...

The racing Leon made its debut at the World Touring Car (WTC) championship race in Oschersleben, Germany, last August, meaning that Seat launched its new touring car before the road version for the rest of us. The first person to drive it was Jordi Gené, brother of F1 driver Marc Gené, who is currently Ferrari's Grand Prix test pilot.

Just over a month after the Leon touring car was launched, Jordi took its first WTC victory - on home territory for Seat, in Valencia. The party afterwards was so good that he remembers little about it.

So the auguries for success in Britain are good. Seat joined the British Touring Car championship in 2004 and has become increasingly competitive thanks to the recruitment of former champion Plato. With another former champion, Thompson, coming on board this year - as well as the former McLaren F1 test driver Turner - it's Seat's most serious assault on the British championship yet.

Plato says: "The Leon has never raced in the UK before, so we have a lot of work to do. As a team we need to raise our game, but all of us know this and we're up for the challenge. I'm working hard on my fitness and I've stopped smoking."

The British series has much in common with the WTC version. Both championships follow the same technical rules and have sought to address the big problem in modern motor-sport: providing value for money for manufacturers.

An average F1 team will need a budget of about £100m a year, while to compete on the World Rally Championship requires about £30m. A WTC season should cost a manufacturer no more than £4m, and a realistic British Touring Car series budget is about £1.5m.

These lower costs come about because the latest generation of touring cars have to be essentially similar to the cars we drive on the road, whereas last year's championship-winning Renault F1 car bears about as much resemblance to a Laguna as Kevin Costner does to John Merrick. Its ad campaign, featuring the F1 car parked at a meter, may say: "Just another Renault", but it's simply not true.

Similarly, last year's Ford Focus World Rally Car had only one external part that was identical to a standard road vehicle: the large bonnet badge. A Leon WTC car, by contrast, is pretty much the same car you can buy at the dealer, so it's easy to see the marketing appeal.

The championship rules - which also apply to the British series - state that the bodyshell has to be straight off the production line (with the addition of a roll cage). Only very limited modifications are allowed to the engine, which must have a maximum capacity of two litres. The suspension layout has to be identical to the road car.

The dashboard must remain in exactly the same place, although the driver's seat can be lowered and moved backwards to aid weight distribution. And that's just about it.

A bit like Subaru, Seat has reinvented itself as a "sporty" brand. While both manufacturers have noted some disadvantages to this strategy - namely a greater number of Asbo-dodging 21-year-olds in hoodies driving their cars - the benefits definitely outweigh the downsides for Seat.

The last-generation Leon was a very good car, with the Cupra a much more involving drive than the more expensive (and iconic) VW Golf GTI, on which it was based and to which it was constantly compared.

Jordi Gené - who became one of motorsport's youngest-ever champions when he won the Spanish Formula Fiat title at just 15 in 1987 - says the new Leon is "without question the best car Seat has ever produced". He cites the characteristics of the competition car that he sampled before anybody else.

"Normally, a racing car's performance has nothing to do with the road car," he says. "But in this instance, the rules are so restrictive that the racing car feels basically the same to drive as the road car." The biggest difference comes in acceleration and braking; understandable when the touring car weighs a minimum of 1,140kg (including driver) compared with a kerb weight of 1,367kg for the 2.0 FSI roadgoing Leon we drove around the same circuit in Germany.

The handling characteristics of the two cars are incredibly similar - as Gené demonstrated in a series of back-to-back tests. Clattering over the kerbs on a racing circuit at nearly 100mph is usually a good way to find which size dentures you take. Yet both the Leon racing car and the road car manage to absorb these impacts while keeping turned in with admirable composure. The road car has less lateral grip so will eventually understeer, but even Maureen from Driving School could deal with it. Just lift off the throttle and everything will drift back into line. Even the most severe provocation is eminently controllable. Sooner or later you'll start to feel like a racing driver - which is always a good time to stop.

"The best circuits for the Leon will always be the tight and twisty ones," Gené says. "The car has a definite advantage under braking and through the corners. The problem we have is top-end power, so we are at a disadvantage on fast tracks. But I don't think that's a problem on the road cars."

The hottest Leon of the range, the 2.0 turbocharged TFSI Sport, has only been on sale in the UK since the start of this year. It will top 137mph, but it's the race-bred handling that will sell the car, thanks in part to Seat's new rear axle concept. Gené had one of the prototypes as a company car and didn't want to give it back. "I've driven a lot of road cars, but this was right up there with the best," he says. "I was expecting it to be good, but not this good." There you have it.

The 2.0 TFSI - which shares its vital organs with the racing car - is on sale for £15,995. But there will be those who are still not satisfied, so, for about £119,000 more, Seat Sport in Barcelona will sell you a racing Leon of the sort that will fight for the British Touring Car crown this year in the hands of Thompson, Plato and Turner.

The exact price is not specified, but the factory says it is "under €200,000" (£135,000). True, it needs an army of mechanics to fettle it and you can buy a Ferrari 360 Modena for the money. But ask yourself this: would you rather look like an Essex stockbroker made good, or an ultra-cool racing driver? Exactly.

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