Professional drifting is war. There's the so-called "power" war going on among Formula Drift (FD) teams—combat fought with Toyota 2JZ inline-sixes and General Motors LS V8s and turbos and superchargers and nitrous. And there's the less known but equally mind bending steering angle brinksmanship, a contest to see who can get their car the most sideways. It's the kind of insane bar raising that lets us know we're watching one of the best shows in motorsports.
April 4-5, FD squads—ready to do battle, flossing all the horsepower and angle they could muster—made their way to Turns 9, 10, and 11 of the Grand Prix of Long Beach street circuit, as they have for the past seven years, to kick off another chase for the planet's premier drifting championship. The league's 11th season looks to feature a roster of fresh faces in hot-looking whips, as well as some recurring characters in refreshed chariots.
Returning series veterans included 2011 champ Dai Yoshihara, who won Long Beach in 2013 and is campaigning the first BRZ in the Formula D in 2014 (and incidentally also bringing OEM Subaru back into the FD fold after a three-year absence) with LS power and a traditional Falken livery. Ken Gushi is back in his Scion version of the BRZ, the GReddy FR-S, rocking a new wrap and a 2JZ underhood instead of the Subie EJ25 he had the past two seasons.
The Gush's Scion teammate, Fredric Aasbo, is back in the Papadakis Racing Hankook tC, now sporting the only Rocket Bunny tC widebody kit in existence. Additionally, '09 champion Chris Forsberg has returned in his Nissan 370Z now sporting a menacing black carbon-fiber look with somewhat minimized branding from sponsors Hankook, NOS Energy, Champion, and others.
Both rookies Alec Hohnadell—in his fluorescent, Miami Vice-esque Enjuku Racing 240SX— and Pat Goodin—in a red Enjuku Nissan that bears more than a passing resemblance to Dai's ex-ride—rocked proper S chassis. Mats Baribeau earned some serious JDM brownie points with his Gold in the Net Toyota X90 Mark II sedan.
Kuniaki Takahashi from the D1 series in Japan is a Formula D noob but in a returning vehicle, the A'PEXi Lexus SC430, the same machine previously campaigned by Ryuji Miki first and later Patrick Mordaunt (who's back this year in one of the ARK Performance Hyundai Genesis coupes). It was the other way around for Charles Ng, in his case a returning driver in an entry new to FD; Ng, who traded in his Mazda FC RX-7 for a seat in the World Touring Car Championship the past two-plus years, is back in the Achilles Radial Infiniti G coupe.
If we were to draw any conclusions from the Long Beach event, chief among them would be these things are moving a lot faster. Gone seem to be the frustrating stoppages in action that in previous years often left fans waiting for judgments to come down from the jury box. In their place, competitions that are decisive and appear to run like clockwork.
Rule changes are at least partly responsible for Formula D's new era of almost zero downtime. One in particular—that judges can use replay only from Round 8 forward during tandem eliminations—seemed to facilitate a Top 32 round that ended nearly a half hour earlier than planned and zero One-More-Time tiebreakers throughout all of eliminations. A day earlier qualifying also wrapped up some 30 minutes ahead of schedule (which had less to do with rules and more to do with FD just getting things done).
Not that this new reality diminished Round 1 in any way, because it didn't. The drifting was still nuts, the wrecks gnarly as ever (like Joon Maeng's qualifying shunt in the Lucas Oil S13, or Kyle Mohan's during Top 32 in his Energy X Mazdatrix RX-8). The event was still huge, sporting a robust vendor area and new "Offset Kings" car show. And Long Beach sold out again on game day, even with organizers opening up more seating.
All the elements were in place for a big day. Unfortunately, for some it worked out better than for others, like in the case of Yoshihara; he faced stiff competition in Forsberg for the opening round of eliminations and had his run end early. Surprisingly, 2012 champ Daigo Saito also exited in Top 32 after contact between his Achilles Tire Lexus SC 430 and Goodin's 240 sent the ex-D1 GP driver to the showers.
Indeed, there were few surprises; pretty much every lower seed got beat by the higher seeds they faced. Mike Essa in the Essa Autosport BMW E46, last year's series champ and Long Beach 2014's number-one qualifier, beat Jeremy Richter in his 240, Baribeau in the Mark II and Forrest Wang in his 2JZ S13 to get to the semifinals.
Forsberg, qualifying Seventh, got by Yoshihara, Goodin and Darren McNamara's Falken S14 to land Top Four. Six seed Justin Pawlak in the Falken Ford Mustang laid waste to Jeff Jones' CX Racing S14, Ryan Tuerck's Retaks 2JZ FR-S and Odi Bakchis' Feal Suspension Nitto 240 to go Final 4. Next, Kenny Moen in the Bridges Racing S13, P4 in the qualifying order, cleared rookie Geoff Stoneback's GSR S14, Mohan's RX-8 and fellow Norwegian Aasbo's tC for a semis birth.
Moen continued to wow when he eliminated Essa, while on the other side of the bracket Forsberg made quick work of Pawlak. That left just one match, the final, because also new to the rules this year is the elimination of the event's so-called "consolation" battle for Third Place. Beginning this season, that final step on the podium is automatically given to the higher qualifier of the Final 4's two losing parties; in this case Essa's number-one spot trumped Pawlak's six.
It was a close last round, but when the smoke cleared Forsberg came away with the triumph, picking up where he left off in 2013—hot in pursuit of another title. Long Beach has been good to Forsberg, too, this his third podium finish in the last seven years. (He also earned Third in 2013 and won in 2008). But Moen should also be proud; his runner-up position is his best showing yet in FD.
After a long off-season, we're beyond thrilled to see Formula Drift back for another year of warfare, and even more excited when we consider the prospect of a true global championship potentially starting in 2015, something announced at last year's SEMA Show press conference. In the short term, Forsberg and the entire FD army now head to Georgia for Round 2 of the championship at Road Atlanta in Braselton.