I was bored of drifting.
That was my response if you’d have asked me a couple of years back why I haven’t been to a drift event in so long. The sport was stale, in my eyes – nothing was changing and there was no progression to any part of it.
I’d closely followed drifting up to that point for around 13 years, and it felt like the ‘next big thing’ that was peddled around for so long was fizzling out into nothing.
I took some time off from shooting, or even paying attention to the sport, but kept it at an arm’s length. Feeling like I’d taken a sufficient vacation, last year I shot two drift events – Drift Masters in Hungary and Formula Drift in Irwindale.
Both events were surprisingly amazing. Maybe the honeymoon period was back, or maybe it was because they were both completely new events to me.
So, in 2019, I decided to follow the Drift Masters European Championship (DMEC) series for a full season to find out exactly what had changed. Of all the events in the calendar, the Latvian stop was the one I was looking forward to the most. Riga holds a special place in the heart of any drift fan who has been fortunate enough to visit.
If you’ve been, you’ll already know what I mean. If you haven’t, then go.
My first visit to Riga for the now defunct Drift Allstars series in 2014 remains one of the most memorable drift events I’ve ever attended. This was in my pre-Speedhunting days, but I’m sure my photos from the event still exist somewhere in the ether of the internet. In 2015, I went back with Paddy and he returned home with exactly the same opinion.
It had been three long years since I stepped foot on Latvian asphalt up to this past weekend, and boy had I missed it.Riga Baby
You see, the city of Riga has a certain energy to it that’s hard to pinpoint. It’s a place filled with a fresh feeling of excitement. Perhaps it’s the disposition of the people that live here, or maybe its a result of a relatively new national identity. The formerly Soviet-occupied capital boasts an awkward juxtaposition of art nouveau buildings within its old town, surrounded by more brutalist structures of Soviet Latvia.
For those with a penchant for a tipple, Riga is now famous for its nightlife, but for those of us with an eye on internal combustion-related activities, Riga is synonymous with one place – Biķernieku trase. This unique Soviet-built circuit, nestled within a forest within a city, is undoubtedly one of the most charismatic motorsport venues in the world.
It’s a highly unusual spot, too. The forest itself was originally chosen as the location of the circuit because of the noise and wind-protection offered by the surrounding trees. However, Biķernieku is also a haunting reminder etched into the memory of locals as the location of the Holocaust in Latvia. The memorial still stands, but Biķernieku is now also a public park, cycle route and, on select dates, a race track.
Pretty much within sight of cars billowing out plumes of smoke from their rear tyres you can see families picnicking by a lake, or lycra-clad cyclists whizzing past. And when the track isn’t live, the cyclists take the same route around the circuit as the cars. It’s really quite unique.
This, along with the city’s rich history also gives the circuit a unique backdrop. Looming brutalist tower blocks overlook the track on one side, before it disappears into a dense pine forest on the other. Mix in some atmospheric light and a fog of tyre smoke and it makes for a pretty place to be.
Of course, it’s only really photographers who care about all that. For the fans here and watching online, the drivers, the cars, and the circuit layout itself is what makes Biķernieku, in my opinion, one of the best drift tracks in the world.
The track here is fast, dangerous and unpredictable. There are full-throttle transitions and off-throttle slowing zones. It also offers what I think is one of the most impactful elements to any drift track: a blind first corner. This means that by the time the cars burst into sight they’re already travelling sideways at 80mph (129km/h) towards a very small grass run-off and then a very solid wall.
Transitioning the other way, there’s a solitary inside clipping point in front of the grandstands, before a fast and bumpy rear clipping zone. Another transition and there’s a huge bump in the track – not as big as it once was (it was known as the ‘Riga jump’) – but still enough to momentarily but severely reduce traction going into another rear clip.
For this year’s Drift Masters event this was where the layout changed drastically. The circuit used to extend off towards the forest, with the finish line almost out of sight of the grandstand, however this year the organisers adopted a 180-degree turn, up against a solid wall and catch fence, to loop the drivers back towards the capacity crowd. This layout was masterminded by Kristaps Blušs for the annual HGK Challenge, and has been referred to as an ‘FD-style’ layout. I’m guessing more because of the aesthetic of driving against a wall and catch fence more than anything else.
One element I’m really enjoying about this year’s DMEC calendar is the variety in circuits. In Austria we were at a relatively small and technical karting track, while France saw a big change to a long and fast circuit.
Poland flipped the script and took place inside a football stadium, and after Riga we move on to Germany to a one-of-a-kind drift festival that takes place in an abandoned steel mine on an island surrounded by a lake and a forest. The season is rounded off at an all-time favourite in Mondello Park.
Every single venue has been so drastically different that there’s no one driver/car/setup formula that works throughout.
Of course, it takes more than a good circuit to make a great event, and the drivers really are key. This year’s DMEC has blown all expectations out of the water when it comes to drifting in Europe.Steering Talent
I think you can identify key traits in drift-driving style from around the world, and Europe seems to offer the perfect melting pot for these styles to come together. In Riga we had the likes of James Deane and Bluss with their styles born in Europe but honed in Formula Drift, mixed with the raw on-edge and aggressive styles of the likes of Martin Richards, Juha Rintanen, Jack Shanahan and Tor Arne Kvia.
Then there’s the fast, snappy and dramatic driving of Duane Mckeever and, a guest driver for this event, Russia’s Gocha Chivchyan, which seems more in tune with how the Japanese would attack a circuit. This fusion of styles, mixed with the huge variety in circuit means that you never know quite what’s going to happen.
Add into the recipe wildcard drivers and you’ve got another unknown element to contend with. Piotr Więcek and Pawel Borkowski arrived and really shook things up in Poland…
…and Gocha, in particular, impressed everyone in Riga. From his S15’s D1SL-esque presentation and specification to the way that he burst into the event and chased like no-one has quite chased before. The fact that he still runs an SR under the bonnet means that he maintains a lot of respect amongst the old school fans of the discipline.
Check out Vladimir’s story on how Gocha went in Riga here.
At first in Riga it looked as if the usual cards were going to fall into place, as qualifying left us with an all Irish top four – Jack Shanahan, James Deane, Conor Shanahan and Duane Mckeever, respectively, locking down the top spots. The tri-colors were prominent and the voices loud across the grandstands.
However, the Top 32 taught us that your money’s never safe betting on this series. By the time we were in the Top 16 Jack Shanahan was the only remaining hope for the Irish.
Don’t tell anyone I said this but it’s about time someone beat them at this game.
As the battles unfolded, and with all eyes on Gocha’s performance, it would be somewhat of an underdog – and I mean that with no disrespect – that would quietly but ruthlessly battle his way through to the finals, almost under the radar.
British Driftworks pilot Martin Richards drove at the first ever event that I attended in Riga, and it’s astonishing to see the amount of progression that he’s made in his driving. Run after run he was giving it 110%, and at any given moment throughout each battle it looked as if both he and the car were on a knife-edge.
The margins between a great run and a big accident are minuscule at this level. Thankfully Richards fell on the right side of the line each and every time. An uncharacteristic spin by Gocha on the last turn ended it in the Brit’s favour.
A driver that’s never won a Drift Masters event before, coming out on top in a 1JZ-powered R32 that’s been used in competition since 2009, closely followed by a wildcard in an SR-powered Nissan. Who’d have called that at the top level in 2019?
I’m doing a lousy job of telling you what happened because I want you to go and watch it back for yourself on Red Bull TV or, for a taster of the atmosphere, check out the video above made in collaboration with Bandana and turn your speakers up. It really was something special.
I can honestly say that this year, the mix of driver skill, variety in circuits, presentation of the event and the professionalism of the livestream, as well as an unforgettable atmosphere makes Drift Masters the most exciting drift series in the world right now. There are a lot of eyes on the championship too – I’ve heard of multiple drivers from other series contemplating a move to campaign in Europe.
For a niche motorsport that’s sat still (on a competitive level) for a few years, people are excited about watching drifting again. If I was going to introduce a newcomer to drifting, I’d do it at a DMEC event.
And if there’s one circuit I’d take them too, it would be Biķernieku.