Compared to most other forms of motorsport, in drifting a driver gets so little time to showcase his car and skills on the track. When I get to the start line, I have to instantly turn on the #MaximumAttack mode. I know that once I take off from that line, every second matters. Each run gives us more data about the car and that brings us one step closer to the podium.
Rewinding to the first round of the 2014 Formula Drift season in Long Beach, my team and I were straight-up struggling with the handling of the brand new Infiniti G37. It was one thing to test the car at Willow Springs, but quite another to drift the car between the walls of the downtown street course. There’s absolutely no margin for error and any flaws in your driving get magnified multiple times. We had a power steering issue that caused intermittent trouble, and on top of that the steering had major issues self-centering. Precision driving was infeasible and I had to manhandle the G between those gnarly walls.
If there’s one thing I learnt the past few years competing in the WTCC, it’s that when you know you are not gaining any position with a less than perfect car, your single most important mission is to bring the car to the finish line in one piece. With all the issues we had, it was not the right time for me to go all-out, so I pretty much kept my distance to the unforgiving walls. We ended up missing the main show by just one spot.
You win some and you lose some. We didn’t make to Top 32 but we came away from the event knowing exactly what we had to work on for Atlanta.
My engine guy, Tom, redesigned the whole power steering system and welded some brackets in the engine bay. He put in a traditional belt-driven power steering pump that output twice the power of the old electric one. The difference was day and night, and the steering has worked flawlessly ever since.
Next up, we made some drastic alterations to the alignment settings. Being the great partner they are, KW Suspension provided us with a lot of valuable advice that vastly accelerated the progress on the handling side of things, so we’re very thankful for that.
We have to admit that the G37 is one of the heaviest cars on the grid. In fact, according to Formula Drift’s tire-to-weight ratio rule, we’re around 250lbs-300lbs overweight. So quite obviously, any reduction in weight would be a step forward. This time we put in a new ultra-lightweight lithium battery that saved us a total of 30 pounds and relocated it to the front for better weight distribution.
Rather than having the ‘ultimate drift setup’ (if there is such thing), I would prefer having the perfect seating position. Whatever the motorsport, it’s of utmost importance that driver feels at ease behind the wheel. This is really important in drifting with such low car-to-car and car-to-wall proximities. My team went through some detailed measurements of the cockpit and tailored the seating position to my needs. Sometimes it’s the little things that have the greatest effect.
Lastly, we installed some newly-designed control arms and suspension bushings provided by SPL Parts, and managed to find one extra degree of positive caster in the front. With that, our upgrade list for Atlanta was complete.Testing times
While my team was working on those upgrades in the states, I working for AMG Driving Academy in China at the Shanghai F1 Circuit. It was a little getaway for me, and that’s the beauty of having a reliable team behind you. Pulling double duty as both team boss and driver is never easy. I took the time to rethink the whole situation. Good development does take time and I was very satisfied with the progress that we had been making.
Fast forward to Thursday practice at Road Atlanta… I warmed the tires, pulled up to the start line, put it in gear and accelerated hard down the hill and initiated my drift.
Straightaway it felt like I was driving a totally different car.
There was a lot more forward momentum powering through the uphill sector and the rear end followed the front without any hesitation from one direction to another. And most surprisingly, the steering wheel returned to straight position, just like a normal car! Right after that first run, I got a strong feeling that we had a chance to bring our A-game and give some of the top teams a run for their money.
Going into Friday, we anticipated rain for qualifying, which was okay by me as I love driving in the wet. I love the challenge of controlling a car on slippery surface, especially on ice and snow, and driving in the rain would mean more grip. With the G being naturally heavy, it’s to our advantage to find traction in the wet.
And did it rain! Every driver was given one warm up lap before the actual qualifying run and I attacked the first corner at almost 90mph at fourth gear. Given that my entry speed in the dry was 103mph, I guesstimated that it was going to be too fast for the conditions, but knowing the worst that could happen, I gave it a try anyway.
In the WTCC, even in the rain it’s business as usual. We keep pushing the cars to the limits and often will go off course into the gravel traps. One other thing I learnt is that as long as you keep the momentum going, 90% of the time you can drive out of it. Of course, at 90mph, I came in far hot and went straight into the gravel. But I kept the power on and managed to drive back out onto the track.
This was how I found the right speed to enter the first turn in the damp conditions, for qualifying. I completed the full course with decent speed and angle and scored a 70. Before the track began to dry up and scores began to get higher, it put us in a very high position. It was such a relief to know that we would most likely make to the main show the next day.
On the second qualifying run the advantages that we had in the wet were gone. We couldn’t better our first score, but regardless, we had officially entered the Top 32.Battle mode engaged
Saturday arrived and it was time for my first Formula D tandem battle in three years. Kuniaki Takahashi is one of the Japanese drivers I grew up watching and I knew that I really had to be on my game. I was up for the challenge and I knew it would definitely be one of the closest battles in the Top 32 brackets.
Given the weight of the G37, on my chase run I had to anticipate Takahashi’s every move and react early. I was able to go door-to-door with him throughout the whole second half of the course.
On my lead run, I kept my cool and drove the correct lines and ended up pulling away through in the last two corners. We got the win. I was yelling on the radio. ‘First Top 16 for the G! Woohoo! Thankyou boys!’ It was truly a big step forward for our team.
The Top 16 ceremony is definitely one of the most enjoyable moments for the drivers and fans, and perhaps the reason why Top 32 battles are so nerve racking. No driver on the grid wants to miss out on this moment of glory and recognition.
It had been a few years, but I still enjoyed every second of it – especially when Jarod was making the introduction to the crowd. The fans were welcoming and I felt like I was officially back to Formula D!
Next battle, I paired up against point leader Chris Forsberg. I knew I had to give it all I had. It was a battle of man and machinery.
On my chase run, I had a good start and kept up with Chris on the downhill straight. I was struggling to catch up going up the hill, but I closed in again for the latter part of the course. It was a close one so I had to keep the uphill battle for my lead run.
I went on to lead and did my very best to be on-point with all the clipping points and zones. However, Chris did a tremendous job chasing and it wasn’t enough for us to take the win. All-in-all, it was a respectable fight. You know you are not too shabby when Andy Luk comes over and gives you compliments.
So Round 2 at Road Atlanta was a wrap. Come to think of it now, I have almost double the horsepower in my G compared to what I had in my RX-7 three years ago, but still we have a long way to go and a lot of catching up to do. The progression of the cars in Formula D is unreal – the teams are definitely at the pinnacle of drifting in every single aspect. We surely are getting there, one step at a time. Things are only going to get better!