This past weekend, the second round of the 2019 Drift Masters European Championship took place at Circuit de Croix en Ternois in northern France.
Amidst violent storms, torrential downpours, baking hot sunshine and clouds of tyre smoke, the scene was set for what looks to be the most impressive season of European drifting anyone has ever seen.
As someone that’s been around drifting for over a decade, I’ve seen the hype build and fall for the ‘sport’ (the quote marks indicate that, even 10-plus years on, some people like to debate this still). Both national and international championships have come and gone, and having seen this cycle a couple of times now it’s become increasingly difficult for me to get excited about something that seemed stuck in limbo.
How long can drifting be the ‘next big thing’ for? Even established championships like Formula Drift seem to have reached a plateau in terms of progression and fan interest.
For as long as I can remember, European drivers maxing out in national championships have lusted over the financially – and logistically – daunting task of making ‘the jump’ to Formula Drift.
It’s difficult enough for a US-based privateer to make it work, let alone someone living and working on a different continent. But the few that have made it have statistically done very well – Europe has given FD some great champions – so you can see why the appeal is there.
But now we have something closer to home for them to aim for, too. This year’s Drift Masters European Championship feels different – there’s been a sudden elevation in presence and stature to the championship that certainly crept up on me.
The circuits in the 2019 calendar look fantastic, the drivers and cars are better prepared than ever, the organisation seems on-point, and the livestream and presentation of the series has completely blown anything before it out of the water. Seriously, if you haven’t tuned in so far then just watch some of it back; it puts many televised productions to shame.
We’re two rounds deep into the six-round series, with Austria and most recently France ticked off. I thought this as good a point as any to introduce the 10 drivers that are standing out for me, personally, so far this year. To those not au fait with European drifting (and as we have a largely US-based audience I suspect that’s a few of you), these will be mostly new names and faces, but mark my words – they’re all ones to watch and any one of them has the potential to take the 2019 DMEC series in hand.Remember My Name
The name Juha Rintanen will ring a bell for those of you who have followed Formula Drift for a number of years. A former European champion, Juha threw his hat into the Formula D ring back in 2015, winning the final Pro 2 round at Irwindale Speedway.
A couple of mid-table FD seasons in Pro followed, but in a roster full of big characters the quietly-spoken Juha never really found his feet on the other side of the pond. This year he’s back in Europe, in the same 850hp 2JZ-powered Nissan S15 that he campaigned in 2017 in the US, and he’s looking stronger than ever.
Few on the grid can create an instant smokescreen like Juha, and his fast and aggressive style of drifting has seen him net strong results in the first two rounds of the season.
Irish brothers Jack and Conor Shanahan are back for 2019, and have both built brand-new machines for the ride. Jack’s retired his Nissan S14 for a new 650hp 2JZ Toyota GT86 chassis, whilst Conor’s Nissan S13 has been put to pasture in favour of the same engine and same power output in a sweet-looking S15.
It’s worth me mentioning that the Shanahan brothers are are pretty much neighbours to James Deane. In fact, he mentored them in their early days. I say early, but Jack is still only 19 and Conor is just 16, and they both have more track experience than most people reading this will.
Watching either of them drive is slightly surreal. From the outside you just see a high-horsepower drift car screaming around a circuit, but when you see an inside view, or catch up with them before or after a run you’re reminded of their youth. Even if you add both of their ages together I still have more years on this Earth.
That’s actually quite depressing.
Yet the two have very different driving styles out on track. Jack often seems on edge and volatile; he’s exciting to watch and isn’t afraid to bump panels and rub paint. Conor is precise, consistent and calculated already, and you can see that as his experience grows he’s becoming more and more like Mr. Deane in the way that he drives.
Tor Arne Kvia
Invoking the spirit of Gatebil, 19-year -old Norweigian rising star Tor Arne Kvia stormed out of the gate at Round 1 in Austria with a huge qualifying run, obliterating the rear end of his 700hp supercharged LS3-powered Nissan S13 against a solid concrete wall, yet still keeping his foot to the floor. Jaws dropped.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s practice, qualifying or battles, Kvia is always at 110% full send. You hear the combined bark and whine of that supercharged V8 long before the blue and gold bursts into sight, and when it does appear it’s almost always faster and more sideways than you anticipate.
Unfortunately, the weather caught Kvia out in France, and he took an early exit in the Top 32. With the next round in Pløck, Poland rewarding drivers with no fear, I think he’ll bounce back just fine.
Hailing from Lithuania, Benediktas Čirba has many years of professional drifting under his belt. His choice of weapon is a bright yellow 850hp 2JZ-powered BMW E46, and within just two rounds of this year’s championship he’s already emerged as a real championship contender.
At Round 1 in Austria Čirba took fourth place, narrowly missing out to Adam Zalewski. In France he got his revenge, outing Zalewski in the Top 32 before getting over-aggressive with Rintanen in the Top 16.
That’s where things ended in France for Čirba, but he’s still in the fight, and has proven that there aren’t many on the grid that he can’t stand toe-to-toe with.
He’s a man that needs no introduction, but this season is a bit of a funny one for James Deane. It’s the first year in as long as I can remember where he’s not campaigning his trusty 2JZ-powered Falken Tire Nissan S14 for a start, and that’s put him on the back foot a bit.
Sure, he flew straight out the gate and won Formula Drift in 2017 in a brand new car, but (and not to take anything away from the feat) that was essentially a remix of his existing Silvia. This time in Europe, James is driving a brand new machine – both to him and to us. The Falken Tire E92 Eurofighter may use the same powerplant and drivetrain as his Nissans, but it’s been a completely different beast to tame.
James undoubtedly gets more seat time than any other professional drift driver I can think of in the world, but with that comes a lot of fatigue from travelling too. Is the Machine human after all?
Round 1 in Austria was all about James finding his feet, and you could tell he wasn’t happy. Yet, he still managed 2nd place.
In France, James looked a lot more comfortable in the car, and despite losing out to Duane in the Great 8, he still managed to throw down one of the most flamboyant reverse entries whilst chasing that I’ve seen in a long time. The Machine is looking at home in the E92, and I don’t think it’ll be long before he’s back on top again.
Adam ‘Rubik’ Zalewski
Another young gun, Poland’s Adam Zalewski returns to Drift Masters in 2019 with a brand-new build: a bright yellow GT86 packing a – you guessed it – Toyota 2JZ engine.
Zalewski was the 2017 Drift Masters champion, and with over 850hp and 1000Nm on tap in the new car, the 19-year-old has everything he needs to repeat the feat this year. In Austria he came out fighting, securing a 3rd place podium spot in his first event in the GT86.
But things got a bit too much in France, and Zalewski didn’t seem to really take to the track, with his event ending in the Top 32. He’s one of the few to have taken on James Deane in battle and won, and with his home event up next I’m pretty sure he’s in the running.
Who Is Miller?
The first I saw of Ukraine’s Max Miller was a video on Instagram of him eating steel washers doused in champagne (no, I’m not joking). I’m sure he’s explaining why, but my Ukrainian is a little rusty so I have no idea what’s going on at this point.
The second time I saw him he was screaming towards me in his gorgeous supercharged LT4-powered BMW M4, looking like he’d been driving the car his whole life. As it turns out, this was its first ever competitive outing.
This car is seriously one of my favourites on the grid this year.
And he can pedal it, too – Miller stuck 7th place in qualifying, before being unstuck by the rain in the Top 32. He’s hoping we see more of his antics this year; drifting needs more big characters like this.
The Red Bull Drift Brothers
Another two-for-one family deal are Germany’s Johannes and Elias Hountondji, AKA the Red Bull Drift Brothers. Boasting two immaculately-prepared cars, great branding and comprehensive paddock setup (complete with basketball street court), the brothers are as popular off the track as they are on it.
Their cars stand out, too. Johannes pilots a Nissan S13 pickup with a 700hp 7.4L LSX, while Elias can be found behind the wheel of a 600hp LSX-powered BMW E30.
They’re both sitting side-by-side in the mid table at present, but what myself and everyone else wants to see if what happens when they get drawn against one another in battle. It’s going to happen at some point…
Polish hard-charger Pawel Korpulinski showed glimpses of brilliance during the 2018 season, and looks to be coming into his own already in Drift Masters 2019. He’s a former Polish champion and a former Swedish champion, so has plenty of experience when it comes to international competition.
Korpulinski was using every single moment of practice to nail down his line in France. In fact, I’m pretty sure he passed me more than any other driver over the course of the weekend. He runs a BMW 1M Coupe with a Toyota 2JZ motor singing to the tune of 800hp.
However, Korpulinski had a big impact in the last moments of practice, coming off track and mounting an oil drum clipping point, sending his car up into the air. He’s another one to watch in Poland, with the home crowd and dangerous track sure to reward his style of driving.
If you’ve not heard of the name Duane McKeever before now then pay attention and mark my words – this 23-year-old from Northern Ireland is world champion material.
He’s already previously won the Irish and British Drift Championships against fierce competition, and now in his first season competing in Drift Masters he’s won two out of two events against the best drivers on the continent.
McKeever is all about speed. Of all the runs over the weekend at Circuit de Croix en Ternois, the runs in which McKeever led were by far the fastest – notably so, in fact. He beat James Deane head-to-head at Round 1, and then repeated the feat at Round 2, leaving the two-time Formula Drift and multiple European champion looking like he was standing still.
McKeever has quickly established himself as the driver to beat this season.
Of course, this is all just my personal take on how things are lining up – it’s still early days, and any one of the remaining roster could upset the balance. With Round 3 in Poland just a week away, we won’t have to wait long to find out.