As we spend the month looking back on the year that was 2012, there is one event that’s generated quite a lot of discussion in our little world. That would be Daigo Saito’s arrival as a Formula Drift competitor and his subsequent championship winning season. For the first in my new series of editorial articles I thought I would weigh in with some of my own thoughts on the Daigo phenomenon and try to explore just what it is that sets him apart from the crowd.
While Irwindale was the only Formula Drift event I attended in person this year, I like many others followed along on the Driftstream watching the battles unfold and trying to determine how one man could have such a big impact on the sport. Of course this wasn’t my first exposure to Daigo after watching him in countless Option videos and having seen him drive in Japan in person on a few occasions. As soon as word came that Daigo would finally be making the jump to compete in the American Formula Drift series, I wondered what would happen when he arrived. We all knew he was good, but how would he adapt to Formula Drift?
There are plenty of reasons why I think Daigo has been successful, but before that I’d like to point out what I think are misconceptions about him. The first would be the fanboyish argument that because Daigo is Japanese and a veteran of D1 Grand Prix that is he is just showing the difference in skill between D1 and Formula Drift. Yes Daigo is Japanese and a D1 champion, but there have been plenty of other D1 drivers that have driven in FD (including another former champ) and none have had anywhere near the success Daigo has. To just say “D1 is better” or “Japan is better” is to miss the point and to understate Daigo’s talents.
The other misconception I’ve picked up on is the idea that because Daigo’s car is powered by something other than a V8 it’s restoring the purity of drifting as a driver’s sport. Yes his Lexus is down two cylinders compared to a lot of the FD field, but it’s certainly not down on horsepower. Let’s not forget that we are still talking about what’s probably the most powerful car on the Formula Drift grid (I’ll touch on his car more in just a moment). It’s understandable to be excited by Daigo’s big turbo powerplant, but don’t mistake this for some underpowered little car that’s sticking it to the big guns.
So then, what is it that makes Daigo so good? Well first off there’s the raw driving talent – something that really goes without saying. It’s hard to say how much of that skill is natural ability and how much comes from practice.
But it’s quite certain that Daigo does indeed get a lot of practice. In fact, it seems like he never stops drifting. Whether it’s in a battered missile car jumping around Ebisu or Nikko Circuit, competing in one of his D1 machines, or more recently in international competition, he always seems to be in a drift car doing something crazy. Hey may not lead a very public life in terms of what he does off the track, but it’s obvious that he cannot get enough of throwing cars sideways. That passion comes through whether he’s battling on a global scale or just goofing of at the track with his buddies.
It’s clear that all this driving experience has paid off tremendously for Daigo, Not just in terms of developing his personal skills as a driver, but also for building and fine-tuning competitive drift cars. His machine of choice is the big boosted Toyota of course, and I think his car selection is an important part of what lead to his success in Formula Drift this year.
When he did make that jump across the Pacific to Formula Drift, he brought with him a brand new car built from his years of experience in competitive drifting. The body of the Lexus may look different, but beneath the skin it has the same foundation as the JZX cars Daigo’s been drifting for years.
When Daigo arrived in the USA for competition he wasn’t driving an unfamiliar new car that a team put him in but rather his own car that had been created from the ground up and then fine tuned based on his years of experience competing in Japan.
So not only would this new car be built to take on all of the Formula Drift heavyweights in terms of power and chassis setup, it would be built to fit Daigo’s driving style like a glove. This is massively important when it comes to competing in what’s otherwise a new and unfamiliar environment.
The stroked 2JZ under the hood is famously built to make massive amounts of horsepower, but more than that, the car was designed to use that power in a very effective way.
Whether it’s the gearing or the nitrous system used to up the response from the single turbo 2J, I can’t even try explain all the wizardry in this car that makes it move the way it does, but it’s incredible. Daigo and Bridges Racing certainly worked some magic here.
As soon as the car headed out on track for the first time, it was clear that we were looking at something wild. The car was fast, and even more so it was an absolute smoke monster. Daigo still had to learn Formula D’s tracks and style of competition, but his machine was more than up to the task.
What also became apparent quickly was just how good Daigo was while following during tandem runs. I’ve never seen anything like it. The way he could stick to the lead car’s door and close up any gap instantly would come to define his season. It seemed like the Lexus had an endless supply of both horsepower and grip that could be called upon at any moment to put the car wherever he wanted it. With the judges’ increased emphasis on proximity this year, it was the perfect combo.
Since his qualifying speeds were never terribly high, Daigo would begin nearly every one of his tandem battles as the follow car and I’m thinking this may have been a strategy. In these opening runs he would demonstrate his unbelievable chase ability, adjusting his car to match whatever the leader would do. Even for the fastest and most aggressive FD drivers, Daigo could seem impossible to shake.
Then with the pressure off of him and onto the other driver, they would switch places. Already holding an advantage, Daigo would put down a lead run with high speed and a smoke screen that made me wonder how the hell anyone could see where they were going.
Daigo wasn’t perfect of course, and it’s not like the his path to the championship came easily, but this is how things seemed to play out time after time. He was a tandem titan and watching him drive it was easy to see the years of experience competing alongside Japan’s best.
To see the influence that Daigo has, one just needs to look at his Achilles Tire teammate Robbie Nishida. Robbie became extremely competitive later part of the season, and you could really see the similarities in performance between his Soarer and Daigo’s Lexus.
Naturally, the Lexus IS that Daigo’s used to dominate the Formula Drift Asia series is built in a nearly identical style to his USA-based car.
In the end it’s difficult to sum up what it is that makes Daigo so successful, but I think it’s about much more than him just being a great driver. He’s gifted behind the wheel yes, but he also brings an incredible knowledge of how a drift car should work and how it should respond to his inputs. Daigo’s cars become an extension of himself rather than just a vehicle he hops in and drives. The result is a talented driver and a brilliantly built car working together in perfect harmony.
On top of that, there’s the relentless passion for drifting. The kind of passion that makes you want to hop in a missile car and go crazy just hours after getting back from winning an overseas pro drift competition. Just for the hell of it, you know? In my view, Daigo’s success comes not so much from where he’s from or what kind of car he drives, but from his complete dedication to drifting and nothing else.
Time will tell what sort of effect Daigo Saito will have on the rest of the Formula Drift field, but I’m already excited to see what’s going to unfold in 2013.
Now that I’ve shared some of my thoughts on the matter, I’m curious to hear what you guys think about Daigo. Let me know in the comments section.
Great article, Thanks. My question is would Daigo be as good as Kazama ? I think he is, but I miss Kazama. I hope that all the pro drifters give him more respect next year than it seem they did last year. The US drivers all had this attitude that they were the best and maybe they felt threaten by Daigo instead of embracing the challenge. The calls in FD being fluid and changing, Daigo had to adjust to them as well so it was not really easy for him. I think that in the end it was a just result and a well deserved one. All the Pro Drifters work hard and compete hard, maybe Daigo just worked harder and with his talent he won. I hope he comes back and that other talented Drivers fro Japan or the world join him. I am excited about next season. I only wished that D1GP would be available on stream in the US. if it is let me know where to find it. Options video is a bit too delayed for my enjoyment.
I forgot I even saw him earlier this year at Suzuka - http://www.roryfollowscars.com/2012/12/diago-saito-doing-his-thing-at-d1-suzuka.html
why is so hard to find pics of his orange bn kitted jzx90 from 2004 d1gp, now that was dope. he come a long way since then. it was a dream to see him down here in nz
Mike, you consistently write the most cohesive and streamlined articles on this site. I mean, they all have awesome pictures but sometimes the words in between make me cringe. It's obvious that all of your staff is passionate, but your writing skills in addition to your passion make for some very enjoyable articles. This one is no exception. Cheers and well done
Awesome article. I actually work on his US car and I could honestly say I have never worked with a drift driver this dedicated to his job. Most of the time people drop off their cars at my shop and say just fix it. Daigo sticks around and gives his 50 cents of the dollar on how he would like it. Super cool guy to work with and really dedicated to his job. I'm typically not one for most of the Japanese car set ups but after working with him I can honestly say he's changed a little bit of my theories on drift set up and I consider myself pretty hardheaded on doing things my way. He has allowed me to try a few changes this season that he did like so next year's testing is gonna be fun since we are mixing his Japanese style set up with a little bit if American style. FYI, He's a guy that doesn't like trying things unless he can see fact of why such-and-such set up is better. again, Awesome article Mike!!
Have to disagree, heavily there, about the JDM drifting not being 'better'. it is. The reason why the other D1 champs never had his level of success is because they never took it as serious as Daigo did this season. This happens in Motorsports all the time, BTCC and the Japanese, WRC and the Europeans, WTCC and Chevy. What will determine the future Japanese participation of FD will be the rewards Daigo will reap from holding the championship. If significant, you will see more JDM drivers making the leap stateside.
I wonder just how much the R&D in Formula Drift is tied to sponsorships. I mean, what if Chris Forsberg has stuck with a Z33 after winning the championship? What if Ryan Tuerck had gotten sponsorship money to develop a S13 instead of going to Gardella and then back to a 240sx? Or Chelsea Defona had kept the BMW? I mean look at Dai's car and the R&D that has taken place and you can't deny the research that has gone into the Mustang chassis with ASD, look at the success of Justin Pawlock and vaughn gittin jr. Daigo's choose everything about his car to suit his driving style whereas a lot of other drivers are thrust into chassis with little R&D with sponsorships. But thats professional racing, everyone wants to win but its more important to get paid.
Great article Mike! I believe that Daigo Saito was so successful this year because of his passion for drifting and the numerous hours he's racked up practicing. I'm sure back in Japan he's got a talented crew of buddies and random people who jump in on practices back home. I love his car choices too, JZX chassis is the best. However, I do not think he is unbeatable and he is human. I believe that his arrival is good for Formula D because now everyone is stepping their game up tenfold. I'm excited for 2013! Keep your eye on Ryan Kado too!!!!
It's his hair. Dai Yoshihara won the championship last year because of his hair. He didn't win this time because Daigo's hair was so much cooler-looking than his. Duh!!
Just look at it! It's got that zig-zag thing going on! It probably set his wallet back $40 for that! Legit.
I'm just gonna say, I'm a big fan. How can I keep track of his activities? I only see him on FD USA & FD Asia.
If Daigo set his own fuel maps, he'd have that much more control over the car. He'd know exactly what to expect of the car at any given point in relation to his throttle inputs. Isn't that part of what separates a good driver from a great driver--knowing what to expect of the car's output at any given point in relation to your input? (For the uninformed, the answer is a resounding "YES!") Knowing the fuel maps like the back of his hand would put Daigo at a sizable advantage over the competition in terms of throttle input IF AND ONLY IF the competing drivers aren't pursuing the same basis of control. Therefore, Daigo's car could be better suited to his particular driving style than the competitors' cars are suited to theirs. However, dyno results allow any good driver to dissect the performance of a car and adapt his driving style to the car accordingly. This would basically nullify Daigo's custom mapping advantage if enough talent is there.This still demands a question, though. If Daigo actively adapts the car to himsef, does this make his fight for the championship any easier for him than it would be for a driver who must adapt to the car on an event-by-event basis?
Well, with the quadruple-digit horsepower his car is producing, mere millimeters of throttle travel will result in a vastly greater measure of car movement at a given speed and slip angle. Pair this with the fact that both of those factors are constantly varied while Daigo is following because he has to make realtime reactions to the leading car, and you'll see that 50% of the competition for Daigo is driver vs. driver (when he's following), while the other 50% is purely Daigo vs. his machine (when he's leading). Any lapse in concentration in either position will more often than not result in a loss, so he has to make his preparations count. Plain and simple.
Overall, what does this say about Daigo?
It says he may possibly be more attuned to his car 50% of the time (leading) and also more talented a driver than the rest of the field 50% of the time (following) on the whole. This makes him 100% the better driver, and 100% the champion. There's nothing to argue here. Congratulations are due.
Well well well... Im a huge fan! For sure he'll be back next year? Im such a fan that i want my drift car matte black... haha ok i wanted it that color before him. Im not a believer that "everything is better in Japan." But he has mad skill, would I rate him as the number one drifter in the world? Well yes, he took the title here and there so championships dont lie. But whats next? Europe? Another thing im happy about it the fact that he took out the v8s here... finally someone put a stop to it! Maybe someone else can think outside the box.
For some reason this makes me think of Ryan Tuerck. Maybe it's because of the whole jumping into a familiar chassis thing and being successful at it...
LOL never seen one man make a impact on a sport. Michael Jordan must be before your time.lol.Dam im getting old. not lol. Its good Daigo shook up the field with his success. Next year everyone and i do mean everyone with beast up like never before. Its gonna be tough for Daigo next year because everyones gunning for him. But great for us because some sexy competition and cars are coming out of it. Daigo is also using one of if not the best designed in line six ever. Hell red necks swear by the 2jz bullet proof design. Great write up OG MIKE
He was my favorite driver until he came over here and he outclassed so many people and his car was so good, it was hard to root for him.
Well, Daigo is really good. There's no doubt about it. Although Lady Luck is also always on his side, as his Formula Drift Asia races will show.
I know Im going to sound like a tool, and I'm not saying I could've done it any better, but this article doesnt really seem to have a whole lot of information in it. From what I can tell, this article just says that daigo is good drifter because he's a good driver, practices a lot, and has a well built car. I feel like all of those things were pretty obvious. Nice pictures though!
As much as I respect Saito's ability, there were way too many favorable calls shown him compared to the other drivers. It is sad actually that the "worthiness" is even in question, but until FD gets a measurement-based scoring system the debates will continue to rage and, IMHO, the sport will suffer.
@kmakzi Yeah that 90 was awesome! I also dug the Chaser he brought to the US for the '06 D1 event.
@JohnColombo Thanks John. I'm really looking forward to doing more of these sort of stories in the coming year.
@Dcraft Thanks Gary! Nice to hear a bit of insider tech knowledge as well :)
I didn't say that Formula D is better than drifting in Japan, I just think that Daigo's success goes far beyond him simply being from Japan. I would love to see more D1 drivers make the jump to FD, or even better a combined event like the old D1GP USA events where the Americans (and other countries) went head to head with the D1 stars.
@JosephMcKinney Yeah good point. Even though he won the championship this year it's not like he ran away with it or anything. Next year should be wild.
@LouisYio You definately made a point there. ;) Was thinking the same ...
@Glubags WHAT? So many words!!!!
I don't think luck has anything to do with it. He works very hard and he drifts more than anyone else I know.
@777 I've heard that too. Not sure if it's true or not but it wouldn't surprise me given how involved he is with the rest of the car.
IF you want technical details on his car, motoiq did a quick look over it and noted differences between it and the american built cars.
@middieman147 Well, it's an editorial piece rather than a technical one. My observations after watching him over the last few years :)
@mikecr8n "Favourable calls on him". Hmm... I don't think the Formula Drift judges made many wrong calls, although the round at New Jersey have many questionable decisions. Don't get me wrong though. I am not a huge fan of Daigo. I have utmost respect for him, but seriously, like what this article wrote, he is just great in tandem battles so I'm not surprise he gets the win.
@Mike Garrett anytime! let me know if you need more.
@Mike Garrett And it was!
@Larry Chen Well, I said he's lucky because on quite a number of occasions in FD Asia, he was on the brink of elimination and suddenly his competitor would crash at the last minute.
I don't deny just how good a driver Daigo is but, the FD judging can and has been awful on many occasions, the worst of which was New Jersey; hell it was bad enough to inspire a meme... Having said this, at this point not one drifting championship has perfect judging and i've seen some awful calls in BDC. Half the problem is that every series has different take on how to judge. Until we have an international standard for judging we'll always have these 'incidents'.
Back on topic, yea Daigo had some 'odd' calls this season but, he did deserve the championship. If nothing else it forces the americans to up their game and I don't mean lets add even MORE power, I mean take from Daigo's example and do more R&D with their cars.
@Glubags I must say, I also have I-Type-Like-A-God-When-I'm-Drunk-itis.
My friends are always impressed I can type well when I'm drunk, but it's really a curse. I can't call someone a "dirty c-word" when I'm drunk cause they always think I'm serious about it. Sad life.
Anyway, cheers, that was really well written for being drunk, lol.