For those of us that know and love professional level drifting, the first round of Formula Drift each year is an obvious highlight on our calendar.
As you likely remember, I documented the entire 2017 Formula Drift season with Worthouse Drift Team, following the progress of James Deane and Piotr Więcek throughout their first full seasons in North America. While our coverage for 2018 will revert to an overall look at the series, it was immediately obvious that the two Worthouse drivers will once again feature prominently this season.
2018 sees considerable additions to the Formula Drift paddock, most significantly the return of style king Forrest Wang. From the off, it was immediately obvious that Forrest has used his break away from the sport to reconsider his approach to competitive drifting. There’s a newfound sharpness to his style, along with a considerable increase in speed.
Italy’s Federico Sceriffo brought the wow factor with his new Ferrari 599 drift car. I’m sure we’re all aware by now how his weekend came to an abrupt halt, but it was an otherwise strong debut for the Italian. In fact, despite the fire, he was the second highest finishing rookie at Long Beach, behind Dirk Stratton.
Otherwise, it was a case of evolution rather than revolution for the season opener. Most of the Pro field chose to retain their 2017 vehicles, with some notable exceptions. Last year’s championship runner-up, Fredric Aasbø, has moved to an all new Corolla which he considers a significant upgrade over his 2017 car. Falken driver Matt Field has swapped his S14 for a C6 Corvette, with Latvian Kristaps Blušs sticking with the new HGK E92 Eurofighter which he debuted unexpectedly at Irwindale last season.
The obvious absence from Long Beach was Irishman Dean Kearney who had a motor fail before the event, preventing him from making the line for qualifying. He will return for the next event in Orlando. However, the grid has been bolstered by the addition of some of last year’s top-running Pro 2 drivers, although Long Beach was still two drivers short of a complete Top 32.The Talking Points
There was always going to be questions asked if last year was just a one-off in the case of James Deane’s and Piotr Więcek’s immediate success in the series. After qualifying was done and dusted, that question was answered, and emphatically. Between both drivers, there were four 96-point scored runs, locking out the top two qualification spots with Piotr having the slightest edge over James under the judges’ style criteria. This would give both Worthouse drivers a bye run straight through to the Top 16.
The Top 32 was largely straightforward, save for the last battle between Chelsea Denofa and Federico Sceriffo. On Chelsea’s lead run, he was hit on the first corner and went head-first into the tyres. On the second run, following some quick repairs to the Mustang, Federico had a mechanical failure on initiation and headed straight up the run-off and into the wall before the car caught fire. It’s thought that a damaged front suspension arm in the original clash with Chelsea broke on initiation, sending the car into the wall with the front left wheel then splitting a fuel line causing the fire. Thankfully, Federico escaped unharmed and the car will be back for the next round.
Speaking of the Mustangs, it was Chelsea who looked the strongest of the RTR twins throughout the event. I’m still not sold on the three-wheelin’ setup of either car, which seems to only highlight errors and throttle lifts, but it does make for great photographs. Vaughn Gittin Jr. definitely struggled on Saturday more so; I don’t recall ever seeing him spin so often in practice and it was a spin which would eliminate him from the Top 16 when facing Forrest Wang.
Despite following the series so closely last year, I’m still not sure if I’ve seen the best of Ryan Tuerck. In his defence, he was plagued with engine problems last year, so 2018 should really be the season he can push forward provided those mechanical gremlins stay behind him.
Another point of discussion was the Top 8 battle between James Deane and Alec Hohnadell. Deane’s lead run saw him take a small advantage into the second half of the battle, but from there, it all went a bit pear shaped for both drivers. Hohnadell appeared to go too hot through the first corner and make contact with the wall at the ‘touch and go’. This caused him to straighten and reinitiate, but earned him an incomplete in the process.
In an unrelated incident behind Hohnadell, Deane broke a rear suspension arm during his chase. He attempted to keep going but by doing so inflicted further damage to the rear left corner of the S15 before stranding the car at the hairpin. With both drivers on an incomplete, the judges deferred to the first run and awarded the win to James. Was it the right call? By the letter of the rules, yes. In spirit, I think we all would have liked to see them both go OMT. Rules are the rules, however.
The damage inflicted on the Worthouse car (which included a broken arm, axle and a damaged coilover) would prove too much to repair in time for Deane’s Top 4 battle with Forrest Wang, despite the use of a competition time-out. Forrest would get a bye through to the final, and we will have to wait for another day to see the Deane/Wang battle we all want.
The other Top 4 final would see Aasbø and Więcek go head to head. With the Pole first out of the trap, he lay down a lead run not that dissimilar to his first place qualifying run. Running from one wall to the next, with full commitment and maximum throttle, he was shadowed by Aasbø in what might be one of the all time great lead/chase runs. Magical.
With the roles reversed, Piotr somehow managed to improve on what Aasbø had done from the same position, right up until a small error forced a straighten at the hairpin. Aasbø would rightly march on towards the final. There would be no shame in Więcek’s defeat, who has followed up his victory at Irwindale with a podium in Long Beach. That’s confirmed another Worthouse driver that the rest of the paddock needs to worry about.
With an eerie fog consuming the waterfront at Long Beach, we watched as Aasbø and Wang went to battle. While the battle required a OMT, the second run of events provided a clear-cut winner, with Wang having a comparatively poor chase run behind Aasbø which saw him fall back and run shallow through the touch and go in order to make up lost ground on the yellow Papadakis Racing car.
First blood to Aasbø it is. After failing to beat James Deane to the overall title last season, it’s a signal of intent from the Norwegian. Considering it was the Corolla’s first competitive event, too, it could be an indicator of a strong season ahead for him and his team. Wang’s return to Formula Drift was about as impressive as he could have hoped for; he was solid all weekend and seems to have evolved and matured considerably as a driver during his time away from the sport. There’s a lot to be said for the strong team performance by both Więcek and Deane, who rounded out the Top 4.
I think 2018 is going to a much closer affair than some might realise. Next stop on the Formula Drift calendar is Orlando in just three weeks time.
Photographed by Larry Chen