This will be a Formula Drift season like none before it. For one, the 2020 campaign has begun in September at World Wide Technology Raceway in Illinois (just over the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo.) instead of its traditional April kickoff on the streets of Long Beach, Calif. Additionally, there will only be four stops on the tour instead of eight, but each will effectively be a triple-header, with FD's Pro 2 farm league staging its elimination battles on the first day of the three-day event format and Pro drivers having the last two days to knock out two rounds of eliminations.
Because of the compressed setup, practice time is limited for competitors this season, and for the first time in series history qualifying has been completely done away with. Tandem pairs are randomly selected, and Formula D has brought back battles for third place, which were eliminated several years ago. All of these measures have been taken in order to deal with the varying regional restrictions due to COVID, but because FD drivers come from all parts of the world, the fallout has extended beyond what a normal event weekend looks like.
Specifically, two of the biggest draws to FD, champions James Deane from Ireland and Daigo Saito from Japan, will not be competing in North America as previously believed. It was announced weeks ago that Deane's Worthouse Drift team will not be returning to the series, it seems due to the pandemic, and more importantly that the three-time and reigning series champ would be leaving the outfit to pursue other opportunities. Saito also had plans to reinsert himself into the Formula D fray with a 2JZ Toyota 86, but because traveling between the two countries necessarily means quarantining for two weeks at a time with each hop, it simply didn't make sense right now for him to compete stateside.
Pro 2, Friday
Because there is no qualifying this year, FD's Pro 2 got their own Top 32 eliminations for the first time in their six-year history, something they've coincidentally been asking for; with only a Top 16 in past seasons, a lot of drivers weren't able to qualify, but this year's arrangement let everyone in. However, in St. Louis only 21 Pro 2 teams made the event, seemingly much fewer than we remember from past events, translating into a Top 32 showoff that had a whopping 11 bye runs, where drivers have to run the course uncontested in order to advance.
When eliminations got underway, we were eventually left with the foursome of Belarussian Dmitriy Brutskiy in the Essa Autosport/Never Settle BMW E46, Josh Love in the After Hours Autosports E36, Jonathan Hurst in the Cash Racing Infiniti G37, and Austin Matta in his Don't Matta Racing Nissan S14. Brutskiy and Love met in the first semifinal, one that was pushed to a One More Time tiebreaker; in their OMT and on their second runs, with Brutskiy in the lead spot, he clipped the wall with the rear of his BMW on the approach to the course's last outer zone, Zone 4, slowing dramatically and getting hit by Love, who had to straighten as a result of the collision. Both drivers were assessed fault and allowed a Competition Timeout to work on their cars, but Love would win the remaining runs and progress to the final.
Hurst and Matta met on the other side of the bracket, with Hurst getting the nod to advance and Matta getting sent to the 3rd-place battle. The consolation fight to determine who would stand on the last box of the podium ultimately went to Matta after Brutskiy in his chase got lost in the the smoke generated by his opponent and shut down his drift coming around the track's switchback where Inner Clipping Point 1 was located.
In the Pro 2 finale, both Love and Hurst traded similar looking lead and chase laps to earn themselves a OMT (Love by this point must've been getting used to redo's, as he had OMTs for his entire run through eliminations). In their rubber match, a trailing Hurst completely missed the track's second rear zone, which put him off line and way off the only inner clip. This was enough to give the win to Love, who now has an early lead in Pro 2 points heading to Round 2 in Washington.
Pro Round 1, Saturday
As teams converged on the circuit, it came out that rookie Pro driver Rome Charpentier, his wife and another teammate were involved in a rollover accident in their tow rig in New Mexico on the way to the event. Miraculously no one was seriously hurt, and perhaps equally miraculous Charpentier decided to keep going, sourcing a replacement truck and trailer and getting his only slightly dinged up car to Rounds 1 and 2. It also emerged at the event that FD vet Ken Gushi had slipped a disc prior to St. Louis, but in spite of the back injury still turned out to pilot his brand new A90 Supra. Kudos to all of them for never giving up the fight.
Charpentier's next challenge may have been just as daunting, facing Odi Bakchis and his Falken-liveried, supercharged V-8 S15 Silvia in Top 32. In the lead, it looked like Rome may have misjudged his entry into Zone 4, because he slowed a ton and Odi had nowhere to go but into the side of Charpentier's Garagistic E36. Upon review of the video, though, judges saw something completely unrelated to the incident that cost Rome the match: his door popped open heading into the hairpin. Doors, hoods, and trunks coming open mid-run are a huge no-no in FD, so Charpentier got an incomplete on his lap.
Gushi also had a wild start to his event against rookie Alec Robbins and his Fasetto 350Z; Robbins seemed on a tear, with an awesome chase in spite of a punctured tire and a marginally sloppy lead lap that judges loved, because he ended up beating the much more seasoned Gushi. Other Saturday 32 highlights include Travis Reeder's botched Zone 1 lead of Radical Daniel Burkett's RAD GearWrench JZA80 Supra, Reeder sliding his S13 into the course's grass shoulder and sending a rooster-tail of sod and dirt onto the Zone 4 entry on the other side of a short wall; Taylor Hull's first-ever Pro eliminations battle victory, driving his Comp Cams Cadillac ATS-V past Dean Kearney's Oracle Lighting Dodge Viper; and a disappointing start to YouTube star Adam LZ's Pro career, as the driver of the Enjuku Racing S15 drew three-time champion Chris Forsberg and the NOS Energy Drink 370Z in his first battle. Forsberg won easily, and while things didn't improve much for LZ the following day, we should remind everyone that he also started slow in Pro 2 before improving all season long and eventually getting on the podium at the final round of 2019.
By Top 16, everyone could see that the track's last outer zone, Zone 4, was going to be a problem because, we learned later, it was hard to see; drivers were mistiming the entry and shallowing up or going too far and putting wheels off. But we won't lie, it definitely made the show exciting.
Mike Essa in the FCP Euro E46 looped his car in Zone 4 chasing Forsberg, allowing Chris to advance to Great 8; Chelsea DeNofa also had the backend of his BC Racing Mustang come around in Zone 4, but this time leading Ryan Tuerck's Papadakis Racing Gumout Corolla hatchback. Recent Pikes Peak Hill Climb Unlimited Class winner Dai Yoshihara in his V-8 Turn 14 Subaru BRZ got into the side of Odi's Silvia in Z4, costing Dai the match, but the wildest shenanigans to come out of Top 16 involved more than just Zone 4, and two specific pilots: Rad Dan and Alec Robbins.
It began with a collision in Zone 4, after Burkett in the lead got on the throttle late and Robbins plowed into him. That was a strike against Dan, but when the two switched positions Alec's steering bound up (due to a bent bash bar, we hear) coming around the hairpin and his Z wound up in the tire barrier on the outside of the turn. With both drivers receiving zeroes for their lead laps, they went at it again in a OMT, with Robbins this time having to stop drifting on his lead before Zone 2 due to fueling issues and Burkett grabbing a little too much angle in Zone 4 on his lead and also getting an incomplete. Judges needed another OMT, which by previous standard was somewhat tame, but Dan had the better chase lap and moved on into the Great 8, the first of his pro drifting career.
Great 8 had Kazuya Taguchi's run in the UP Garage S15 come to an end against Forsberg's Z34 after the J driver could not mount a better chase, while Rad Dan in his Supra was again vexed by Zone 4, allowing 2015 champ and Papadakis driver Fredric Aasbo in his new Rockstar Energy Drink A90 Supra to advance. Tuerck in his Gumout Corolla and Dylan Hughes in his Royal Purple 2JZ E46 got pushed to a OMT, but in the decider Ryan had the superior chase, while Odi and Justin Pawlak in the Falken Roush Performance Mustang had almost even laps until JTP over rotated in (you guessed it) Zone 4 and gave the "w" to Bakchis.
The semifinals featured Fredric Aasbo moving forward to the final in his A90 after Chris Forsberg's Z developed a boost issue due to a broken intercooler and Forsberg couldn't finish his chase lap, earning a zero; even more unfortunately, Chris's team couldn't finish a fix in time for the round's 3rd-place battle. That drive would have been against Odi Bakchis, who lost to a power steering-less Ryan Tuerck in the Final 4 after Odi got on throttle late at the start of Zone 4. Bakchis had only to take a bye lap in the consolation battle to secure third place.
This left us with an all-Papadakis Racing final, with Fredric Aasbo in his new Supra facing team new guy Ryan Tuerck in Aasbo's old Corolla. We imagine it would have been an epic battle if the power steering in Ryan's hatch was still functioning, but since it wasn't Fredric had this one in the bag, leading a Papadakis one-two punch to start the season.
Pro Round 2, Sunday
For the first-ever Formula Drift round on a Sunday, drivers were definitely a lot more settled and there were fewer fireworks on track (i.e. less collisions), but vehicle attrition became a larger concern; never had the series held back-to-back events, and so it was somewhat expected that cars and teams might be experiencing fatigue. FD did alter the track slightly, erecting much taller traffic cones in Zone 4 on Sunday so drivers could have a clearer sense of where the limit was, and as the event wore on it turned out to be the right call.
Pro's rookies were straight-up unwelcome in Top 32 on Sunday. Alec Robbins and Ken Gushi faced again in 32, but a day after their first encounter Ken came out the winner. Rome Charpentier's E36 chasing Vaughn Gittin's Monster Energy Drink Mustang whacked the outside tire wall to the hairpin, and so too did Yves Myer's Lattesso BMW F22 in the lead against Odi Bakchis's S15, both rookies ending their respective weekends. Even Adam LZ couldn't catch a break, getting yesterday's winner, Fredric Aasbo and his Supra, in the draw and again unable to come up with anything to match the past champ.
In Top 16, things were getting heated when Rad Dan's Mk4, in its second old-Supra-vs.-new-Supra battle in as many days, punted Ken Gushi's Mk5 off the course at Zone 1, costing Dan the match, as well as when Aasbo didn't give Matt Field's Falken Chevy Corvette enough room to initiate, which judges pinned on the Rockstar car and eliminated Fredric from the event. Further down track, friends Dylan Hughes and Travis Reeder got into each other in the hairpin, with Reeder's S13 assigned fault and Hughes and his E46 able to move up. Chris Forsberg and Chelsea DeNofa had an awesome pair of laps that went to OMT, where Chelsea emerged victorious; Ryan Tuerck and Vaughn Gittin also needed an extra frame to decide a winner, and that ultimately went to Tuerck.
Quarterfinals action saw Field dispatch Gushi, and Essa, down on power due to engine problems, fall to DeNofa. Tuerck knocked off shop-mate Hughes, while Pawlak didn't have as clean a chase run as Bakchis, judges sending JTP to the showers.
In the Final 4, Chelsea DeNofa's Mustang survived contact from Matt Field's C7 to advance to the last round, while in a rematch from the night before, Odi Bakchis and Ryan Tuerck faced off, but this time the decision went the other way, with Odi moving on. This led to a 3rd-place battle between Field and Tuerck, one that was initially too close to call, so judges asked for another pair of laps; the OMT was equally amazing, but in this instance Tuerck looked to have the better runs and was therefore awarded another trip to the podium.
The final battle of the long event came down to chase laps, with Odi miscalculating Zone 4 and having to make a huge correction. Judges gave the event win to Chelsea DeNofa, and after two Pro rounds in a very unique weekend, both Odi Bakchis and Ryan Tuerck lead the championship chase at this very early point in the season.
As spectators, we're digging the format of three days of tandem eliminations and do not miss qualifying one bit. In fact, we're happy Formula Drift got to do anything at all this year given the circumstances, but that being said at this point it looks like there will be no fans allowed at the next round at Evergreen Speedway due to local restrictions related to COVID (and the same might happen for the Irwindale finale, too). FD's livestream will be a lifeline for fans, including us, who have a couple weeks to prepare for Rounds 3 and 4, set for Sept. 25 to 27 in Monroe, Wash.