Following on from the announcement earlier this week, I made the trip to Poland last weekend to catch up with James Deane and Piotr Więcek and find out how they fared as team mates. It’s one thing competing against each other regularly, but to make it as a team in Formula Drift, they would need to get behind each other.
The final rounds of the Drift Masters series would take place over two days, with another day, on the Friday, being dedicated to extra practice before the two final rounds took place. Round 11 would take place on the Saturday and Round 12 on the Sunday.
It would be Saturday morning before I got to the track in Płock – pronounced Plosh – and by the time I had signed on for media and was briefed, there was already drama unfolding.
In an uncharacteristic mistake, James had hit the back of the car hard on his first practice run. “When we were practicing on Friday evening, there was one particular part of the track that was so grippy and really needed more aggression to make it round,” James told me. “This morning, the exact same place had zero grip.”
Already this wasn’t looking like a typical James Deane weekend.
The damage was isolated to the rear driver’s side of the Falken and Bud Mat-liveried S14. The rear quarter panel had been pushed in, but the worst of the damage was to one of the rear Wisefab arms which had taken the brunt of the impact against the concrete wall.
With no spare available, the arm had to be roughly beaten back into as straight as possible before qualifying commenced; with time ticking, there was considerable pressure on the Deane camp. Drift Masters strict rules were also about to potentially play havoc, as any car that is not in the queue for qualifying when the first car takes to the track, automatically forfeits its first run.
This was not ideal and certainly not how James was expecting the competition to begin.
With the arm refitted, there was no time to check alignment until after qualifying, and it had to be gauged by eye to assess the impact it would have on the car’s handling.
Just to add insult to injury, all cars at Drift Masters must compete with all of their panels and lights intact. If you lose a bumper, a light or even a spoiler end plate during a run, it’s an automatic zero. There are no exceptions.
Piotr wasn’t having a great morning either, his 2JZ-powered R34 suffering drivetrain problems during his practice run. I later saw a very broken-looking propshaft being removed from the R-Body Nissan, but luckily he had access to his spare car which was ready to go, a 2JZ-powered S14.
At this point, I headed trackside to familiarise myself with the layout and to check out the other competitors.
The track is a temporary one, located at the home of Polish soccer team, Wisla Płock. A tarmac area has been added to the outfield of their home field, skirting the perimeter and with a large open area in front of the sole grandstand. What’s unique about this layout is the inclusion of a ’roundabout’ in the middle of the run. A car will approach from camera left, complete a clockwise lap of the roundabout inside a designated scoring zone and exit back onto the next left hander where the Red Bull inflatable arch is.
It’s a very tight and technical course, but it was the same for everybody.
For added, um, impact, the entire course was lined with concrete barriers. As you can see, they’re quite capable of stopping a car in its tracks. Luckily the driver was completely unhurt and was able to continue with his other car.
With qualifying resumed, it was time for the rest of the field to put a score on the board. I’ve always been impressed by how naturally Piotr is able to jump from the R34 to the S14 and be immediately competitive.
Even more so, I’m impressed by how James can qualify a damaged S14 to fifth place on the grid. With both drivers comfortably into the Top 16, they could return to the impressive Bud Mat Auto pit tent to regroup and rebuild for the battles.
This couldn’t have come soon enough for James in particular, who was finally able to make proper repairs to his S14, along with a realignment following his morning crash. I think it was one of the very first times I’ve ever seen him under this sort of pressure, which is when you really see what someone is made of. As it turns out, his ‘Machine’ nickname is well earned. He pored over the car and identified what needed to be done and what could be left alone, and pitched in as his mechanics got to work.
With the support of the Bud Mat Auto team, James’ mechanics focused on the rear right of the car, ensuring that everything would stay put for the rest of the event. It was very much a belts and braces exercise at this point.
At the other side of the rig, Piotr was ready to do battle. As the brackets for battles were announced, both drivers could only meet each other in the final. Going by the luck they had already endured that morning, the thoughts of that seemed a million miles away.The Cold, Cold Rain
I’ve been to Poland twice now, and I can only conclude that it is indeed the coldest place on earth. Either that, or the local weather systems hate me, which is entirely possible. Between qualifying concluding and the battles commencing, a slow and steady rain fell onto the arena. Having had two dry days of practice, the rubbered-in course transformed almost instantly into an ice rink.
There’s one thing to be said about a situation like this – it’s a completely level playing field. There would be no warm up laps, just a short drive to the start line and off they went. Every driver had to learn on the fly how much grip there was, or wasn’t in this case. Catching James between battles, he told me it was the worst conditions he had ever driven in; even the frozen lake he had demonstrated on earlier this year for Falken had more grip.
There would be no crushing victories for either driver as they progressed, the conditions testing their patience as much as their ability. Deciding just how hard to push was key. Another quirk of the Drift Masters series, along with the others mentioned previously which still stand during the Top 16, is if the chase driver makes any contact with the lead driver, the chase driver is scored an automatic zero on that run. They want the cars as close as possible, but no contact is allowed.
You may look, but you shall not touch.
Once the first round of battles had commenced, you could see the inevitable happening. There were some scares along the way, but it was almost as if destiny had already decided both drivers’ fate. On this weekend, where they would announce their 2017 Formula D campaign, it had to end with them both in the final.
As the field was narrowed down to eight and then to four, they would wait in the dark.
Where possible, each driver would watch the other and share their tales from the battles. There were some funny moments too, in particular during one of James’ later battles, the lead car’s rear bumper was knocked off but one cable tie held it to the car. James is seen here recalling how he spent the whole chase run wishing that lone cable tie to break, for the bumper to be free and for him to gain a massive advantage. The cable tie didn’t break, but James did advance.
Somehow, the conditions continued to worsen. From one lone part of the stadium, the Irish support huddled together but remained as boisterous as ever, both for James and their newly adopted Polish son.
What did we just say about it being inevitable?The End Of An Era
No matter which way you look at it, this was already the perfect result for the Bud Mat Auto team. Both of their lead drivers were in the final, despite the unmerciful hardships faced earlier in the day. It was the perfect end to the tale too. Only for the slightest of errors by Więcek on his chase run, which saw him make slight contact with Deane’s door, they could have battled all night. This slight contact though was enough to give James the win, although he seemed to take no real pride in winning on a technicality, despite having lost to the same technicality earlier in the season to another competitor.
When you spend time with both drivers, it’s obvious that they would happily bang doors until they run out of fuel or tyres or both. They’re both so aggressive but very honest at the same time; there’s no gamesmanship. It’s go hard or go home and a victory has to be a victory.
Having already secured the Polish championship, Piotr was still a happy, happy man.
The perfect end to the season? Sort of. Sunday saw the competition run again for what was the final round of the championship, and this time Piotr defeated James in the Top 4, but they both ended up on the podium again anyways, this time in second and third place.
But I much prefer the Saturday narrative.
As this season finally wraps up for both drivers, it also signals the end of a particular chapter in their respective careers. Officially, Europe is now behind them with their focus on North America and the Formula Drift championship for the foreseeable future. I’m sure the odd appearance will be made on this side of the Atlantic, but for the first time ever, for both drivers, Europe will no longer be their priority.
Come next spring, the streets of Long Beach will have two new drivers on the grid, both of them multiple and reigning champions. They will be equipped with new cars in a new championship that neither of them have ever contested a full season in before. Lots of questions will no doubt be asked, lots of questions will no doubt be answered too. Last weekend might have saw the end of one story for James and Piotr, but a whole new one is about to be written.
Formula D, they’re coming for you.Cutting Room Floor