We’re pretty sure nobody wanted to see the 2013 Formula DRIFT drivers championship settled like it was last Saturday night, not even champion Michael Essa, pilot of the GSR Autosport BMW E46 M3. While the newly crowned champ was humble and gracious – a true sportsman, to the very end of the night – he must’ve felt exceedingly lucky to have things pan out the way they did after an engine failure at the end of the first lap of his first tandem elimination round.
It came on a big night, the close of FD’s 10th season, at a big place, a sold-out House of Drift, Irwindale Speedway, after a controversy-marred season for America’s drifting big leagues. Essa, who entered Irwindale leading the points chase by 15.5 markers, could only watch as the chips started falling his way after what was probably the most heartbreaking turn of his year.
The mill finished in his Bimmer, the miracles started when his opponent in that opening Top 32 round (and incidentally Slide Assassins crew-mate), Luke Pakula, also could not continue, claiming to have a broken transmission in his AE86 Corolla. Apparently, Essa was allowed to advance to the next eliminator, Top 16, and earn those points to keep him ahead of his only competition in the standings, NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z driver and 2009 Formula D champ Chris Forsberg. Coupled with the markers tallied from his number-one qualifying position for the weekend, Essa actually had an even bigger margin entering Top 32 (24.5).
Smelling something fishy, Forsberg’s teams filed a pair of protests after Essa was allowed to advance, claiming two separate rules infractions, both of which were turned back by series officials. With no alternative but to fight it out, Forsberg clawed his way past tough tandems with 2011 champ Dai Yoshihara in his Discount Tire S13 (the final event for the car, as Dai gets into a BRZ next season) in Top 32 and then perennial spoiler Odi Bakchis in his United States Air Force Nexen S14 in Top 16.
Forsberg needed to finish on the Round 7 podium to take the title outright, but that was easier said than done. In Great 8, his opponent was Daigo Saito and the Achilles Tire Lexus SC430, reigning series champ and arguably the greatest drifting talent on the planet today.
Their battle was intense, prompting a One-More-Time tiebreaker. As these high-horsepower cars tend to do, Saito’s 1,000-horsepower-plus, turbo 2JZ-motivated Lexus seemed to lunge at Forsberg’s Z from the chase position, both cars laying down brilliant tails of tire smoke traveling at high speeds just inches apart.
What was probably the best match of the night turned out to be Forsberg’s last. Judges ruled in favor of Saito after the One More Time, and Forsberg finished the year with 538 points, 17.5 behind Essa. After the battle, Saito got out of his car and walked over to Essa, who was standing just off of pit lane during the tandem, and gave him a hug. The torch was officially passed.
Shortly after Forsberg was eliminated he had this to say, "Next year we’re going to try to bring it bigger and better as always. I’m super proud of my team for giving me the best car I’ve ever had and the best shot we had to win the championship this year. And we were super happy to bring that chance to Hankook Tire and a second win to NOS Energy drink. However, it’s a real disappointment to see the championship decided over a technicality as per a disregard of clearly stated rules in the Formula Drift rulebook - a rule that states if you are unable to fix your car in 5 minutes then you forfeit.
Essa’s GSR Autosport M3 is not only the first BMW to carry someone to a Formula D championship, but the first vehicle of a European brand to do so. The E46 is also the first Yokohama Tire-shod car to win an FD title since Rhys Millen did it with his Pontiac GTO in 2005. Essa finishes 2013 with three podium finishes out of seven rounds, two of those victories.
‘Coming into this event I wanted to prove that this season wasn’t a fluke, and sitting on the sideline wasn’t how I wanted the event to go down, but unfortunately that is what happened tonight,’ said Essa in a post-event interview. ‘The Formula DRIFT championship has always been my goal and I am extremely excited. There are so many amazing drivers and teams in the series and being able to just compete with them is an honor. We are hoping to carry this momentum into the next season and earn more wins.’
When asked about the blown motor, Essa had this to say, "I don’t think it was the bottom end – the bottom end is solid with CP pistons and Carrillo rods. We’re a privateer team with a small budget so our top end was all stock and I think we just lost a valve and a valve ate a piston and that was it.”
The rest of the night was just as dramatic if much less contentious. In addition to all the night’s winners, standout performances were turned in by Irish hot-shoe Dean Kearny in the Oracle Lighting Dodge Viper, who advanced to the Great 8, going deeper into eliminations than he’s gone previously in the long-wheelbase supercar, and his Achilles teammate Robbie Nishida in the Bridges Racing Lexus SC300, who earned a top-four finish after a rough start to both his 2013 and his Irwindale weekend. Nishida brings home a top-10 ranking in the points.
The podium spots were taken by a mix of the series’ old talent and new. Forrest Wang in the Get Nuts Labs 2JZ S14 finished third, nabbing his first FD pro trophy after getting past the likes of Matt Field in the CX Racing Maxxis S14 and 2010 series champ Vaughn Gittin, Jr. in the Monster Energy Nitto Ford Mustang. After a season of woes (including two zero-points showings), Tyler McQuarrie finished strong in the GoPro Hankook Chevy Camaro, getting second-place hardware.
Saturday night’s biggest winner, however, was arguably Daigo Saito, the winner of Round 7 and savior of Mike Essa’s season. It’s amazing that a driver with four podium finishes out of seven rounds and three of those victories could still wind up so far out of the points entering the finale he was basically eliminated from the championship by the time qualifying was over. And yes, this is the series’ 2012 champion, not to mention the scores of other titles Saito has racked up over the past five years.
Saito stumbled only twice this year, in Washington and Texas, but that was all it took to foil back-to-back titles.
Congratulations to Mike Essa and the GSR Autosport team on a remarkable year, and to Formula DRIFT for advancing the sport for the last 10 years. The next big news to come from FD will be at the 2013 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, November 5 to 8, where 2014 plans are expected to be unveiled. We also wouldn’t be too surprised to see the league address at some point the repeated vocal criticism throughout the year of the rules and judging, a sore point that reared its ugly head again unfortunately during one of FD’s biggest nights.
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