The 2017 Formula DRIFT pro championship is decided. Oh, we know there's still one round left on the calendar, and Fredric Aasbo - 2015 champ and driver of the Rockstar Energy Corolla iM - is mathematically still breathing, even though at this point he's a distant 96 points behind leader James Deane in the Worthouse Drift Team S15, and not very likely to catch him. It's that last part we can't reconcile, and anyone who wants to believe there's still a chance for Deane to falter and Aasbo to somehow make a miracle happen - well, we hate to break it to you, but there's no denying fate.
It looked a tad bit more possible going into Round 7 of 8, set on a section of the infield road course at Texas Motor Speedway; then, Deane was only 57 markers out of reach, and with a lucky break (heck, Aasbo even had a chance to eliminate Deane!) this story might be different. But as he has in the last two rounds—Montreal and Seattle—Deane qualified number one, and again looked unbeatable.
Matt Coffman in the Coffman Racing S13 lived up to his potential and tied Deane's qualifying high score of 97 (out of 100), but because Deane's low score was higher than Coffman's (92 and 90, respectively) the Irishman was awarded number one. Aasbo wasn't far behind, in fourth, with New Jersey-round winner Odi Bakchis in the Falken S14 slotting in between Coffman and Aasbo.
We had 28 hot shoes for Top 32, which meant all four of the above got to skip the opening cycle of tandem eliminations. Highlights from the first round included Kristaps Bluss in the HGK Motorsports E46 needing a One More Time (OMT) tiebreaker to dispatch Alex Heilbrunn in the IMR BMW; and Jhonnattan Castro in the Gerdau Metaldom 86 continuing his emerging giant-slaying ways by shutting down Matt Field in the other Falken S14 (you might recall Field came alive in Texas last year, scoring his first FD career win). And then there was the clipping zone 3 barrier that - again - exacted its pound of flesh.
Specifically, the tires that are now in front of the wall - they were put there after the 2015 edition of this event, when Vaughn Gittin, Jr. violently backed his Monster Energy Mustang into what was at the time just a k-rail; the hit was so hard it ended his season (the car was irreparable, the driver was banged up but largely ok). This time around, cars were sliding their ass-end through the section and snagging the rubber carcasses, which in a couple instances sent competitors spinning. As Juha Rintanen in the STR Racing S15 led against Ken Gushi in the Greddy Performance 86, the left rear of his car whacked the tires and pulled a couple bunches of them onto the track, raining debris down onto Gushi and sending the Silvia into a 720 spin. Then to close out Top 32, Dean Kearney in the Oracle Lighting Viper was trailing Dai Yoshihara in the Turn 14 BRZ and did something similar but much less brutal, getting lost in tire smoke coming from Dai's car and misjudging his approach to zone 3, also smacking the tire wall but only falling out of drift (and not sent into a death spiral).
Top 16 started with Deane moving on essentially unopposed as Alec Hohnadell in the Urban Air Initiative 240SX suffered a broken diff after initiation on their first lap and could not continue. Bluss and Chelsea DeNofa in the BC Racing Mustang RTR went next in what were two insane laps where DeNofa came out victorious. Aasbo and Justin Pawlak in the Roush Performance Mustang drifted to a OMT, and in the extra frames Aasbo upped his chase game and won the match. Ryan Tuerck in the Gumout 86 faced off against Gushi and they too drove to a OMT, where Tuerck just couldn't match Gushi's angle or pace.
Gittin was supposed to face Coffman but the latter's engine went ka-blammo. Next was three-time champ Chris Forsberg in his NOS Energy 370Z and 2013 champ Mike Essa in the Essa Autosport E46; like Rintanen and Kearney earlier, Essa found himself spinning like a top after he tagged the zone-3 tires too hard, getting an incomplete and allowing Forsberg to advance. Castro's Texas Cinderella story came to an end against Bakchis, and the round of 16 closed with Yoshihara and Piotr Wiecek in the second Worthouse Silvia squaring off, with Wiecek botching the initiation in the chase spot and Dai moving on to the Great 8.
The quarterfinals—aka the Great 8—came to life with Deane and DeNofa butting heads and putting down some screaming-fast laps that lacked angle and were somewhat error filled, but Deane's were the less egregious. Toyota Racing teammates Aasbo and Gushi had the spotlight next and slid to a OMT, where Aasbo had a crazy chase lap and Gushi was off line in sections both in front and in back. The other half of the bracket saw Forsberg dispatch his Drift Alliance bro Gittin, JR getting lost in a prodigious amount of smoke coming off of Chris's Z in the course's "power alley" and going way off line. Great 8 ended with Bakchis and Yoshihara driving to a OMT, and in the bonus Odi had the much stronger chase,
By qualifying number 1 and making the Final 4, Deane was guaranteed third place—but with his opponent being Aasbo, the semifinals meeting also represented an opportunity to put some distance in the points between himself and his most prominent threat for the title. And that's exactly what he did; Aasbo got lost in the smoke laid down by Deane in the power alley, which altered his path past clip 2 and zone 3, and that was enough to grant Deane entry to the finals. Forsberg then played spoiler against Bakchis, Odi also losing his bearings in the smoke line and over-rotating just past clip 2.
And so Deane and Forsberg entered the ring for the last battle of the night. As much as we wanted the pairing to be epic, ultimately Forsberg could not chase like Deane, the Irishman close enough to force a couple errors from the triple champ. It was all very sobering - we were witnessing, as we have been the entire season, as we did when the likes of Gittin in 2010 and Daigo Saito in 2012 did the same, the utter domination of Formula D's best and brightest by a single upstart driver.
Deane earned the victory, his second perfect event in a row, and took home gold for a fourth time this year, tying the record for most wins in a season (ironically held by Aasbo), as Forsberg finished second and Bakchis third. More importantly, Deane holds a towering 96-point advantage in the driver's table heading into the season finale at Irwindale Speedway, with only 107 points up for grabs.
We don't necessarily have all the math figured out, but basically in order for Aasbo to catch Deane he would need to have a perfect event and Deane would need to get eliminated early in competition - and that all seems pretty unlikely to happen. UPDATE: Ok, we did the math, some of it anyway. It looks like Deane needs just 12 points to clinch the 2017 driver's championship, which means at a minimum he will need to qualify for Top 32 and at least take one lap in that opening eliminator, which for him is a pretty low bar. There are still far-out possibilities - what if his car breaks irreparably before Irwindale? What if he wrecks in practice between Friday qualifying and Saturday tandem eliminations? - but let's not kid ourselves. This deal is done.
However it shakes out, we're just looking forward to returning to the House of Drift one last time before the place gets torn down; the season ender is set for October 13 and 14 at Irwindale Speedway, but if you can't make it to Round 8 there's always the Formula DRIFT live stream and alternately the Network A version of the same stream (sometimes more reliable than FD's). You can also download the Formula D app from your app store and in it is live stream functionality as well.