One of the most interesting aspects of the Drift Masters European Championship (DMEC) is their invited wildcard drivers. At the fourth round of the 2019 series held in Riga, Latvia over the weekend, there were a number of drivers from the Baltics and one very special driver from Russia.
Siberian Georgy ‘Gocha’ Chivchyan is the current FIA Intercontinental Drifting Cup champion, and arguably the finest drifter to have ever come out of Russia. Quiet, precise and very consistent, Gocha is a force to be reckoned with when he gets behind the wheel of his yellow Nissan Silvia S15.
Gocha’s guest appearance in the DMEC was a special one on a number of levels. Not only was this his first event in Europe, Round 4 would be his first time drifting at the car-destroying Bikernieku Circuit. Given that Latvia is another Post-Soviet country with a strong Russian Drift Series following, Gocha definitely didn’t feel alone.
It’s hard to believe that the 2019 drift season has already passed its halfway point, and already the top drivers are planning for 2020. FIA representatives were in Latvia and talked to Gocha about his future plans. The word was that RDS is Gocha’s priority, but nobody really knows what will happen until next year.
Last Friday was Round 4 practice, and right away Gocha looked comfortable behind the wheel on what is an extremely unforgiving track. He had good speed and filled the clipping zones, and before long his Silvia was chasing down some of the best drifters from Europe in practice chase runs.
Not only was Gocha performing well, but the 750hp ‘SR20VET’ engine in his S15 didn’t miss a beat all day. That was a promising sign too, because while Gocha’s Forward Avto team usually travels around Russia with a bus full of equipment and spares, for the trip to Latvia they only had a van’s worth of parts and tools. Just crossing the border into Europe is a real headache in itself, so it wasn’t worth the hassle of bringing all their gear for such a short visit.Game Day
Drift Masters’ main competition day is always action-packed. Practice starts early, qualifying begins at 10:00am, and both the Top 32 and Top 16 battles are fought the same day.
Gocha was one of the first drivers to hit qualifying, but it wasn’t the high-scoring run he hoped it would be. Disaster struck at the very end of the section when he clipped a concrete barrier with his rear bumper. There was enough force in the hit to turn the front end of the car into the barrier too, damaging the S15’s suspension in the process. Luckily for Gocha and his team, 40 more cars needed to make their first qualifying pass before the Silvia was due back out on track for its second and final attempt, so it seemed like there’d be enough time to repair the car if the damage wasn’t too great.
As it turned out, the Nissan was able to be turned around in time for the second qualifier, and going into the make-or-break run Gocha was calm and collected. Before he pulled up to the line, neither myself or any of the other photographers around me really knew how he’d attack the section. Would he go for a safe run, or would he give it 100%?
The second he unleashed the S15, we had our answer: Gocha was going for it. The result was a 91 scorecard, which matched James Deane’s first qualifiying pass, and ultimately put him in fifth place for the Top 32. Think about that for a moment… Gocha had only one day of practice and only one chance to qualify, and he finished higher than most of the top European drivers who have many years of experience on this iconic drift course.
Within an hour of qualifying ending, the track was alive once more with a symbolic burnout-free parade to kick things off. Gocha’s first battle was against the wild Finn, Juha Rintanen. On paper it looked like an interesting match-up, but a problem with Juha’s clutch cylinder meant Gocha progressed to the Top 16 with a bye run.
Amazingly, both Duane Mckeever – the current Irish and British drift champion – and Marco Zakouřil – 2018 King of Europe champion – were both beaten in their respective Top 32 battles, so it really was going to be anyone’s event to win.
It was Benediktas Čirba, a very promising driver from Lithuania, that met Gocha in the Top 16. While Gocha did make a small mistake in the high-speed section before the final outside clipping zone, everywhere else he was dominant, resulting in a ticket through to the Top 8.
Elsewhere in the battle ladder, Austrian Brandy Brandner had dealt to Mckeever in the Top 32 and Krzysztof Romanowski in the Top 16. Now he was up against Gocha in the Top 8.
Gocha’s car was faster and snappier, and his chase was exemplary. As a result, the Russian driver moved on to battle the final Irish driver still standing in the competition – birthday boy Jack Shanahan.
After his big mistake in qualifying and the small one in the Top 16, it was obvious that Gocha was still coming to grips with the track. But now more than ever he had to get it all together. Jack on the other hand just celebrated his 20th birthday, and if my memory serves me, he’s been driving this track since he was 14.
Having qualified 1st, the Irishman was the driver to beat, but Gocha isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. The Russian chased first, and he probably couldn’t have done it any better than he did, right up close and mimicking Jack’s every move. When the positions changed and Gocha led, Jack needed a totally error-free chase, and it was all that right up until the moment he clipped the grass in the transition. It almost felt like a final battle, but it wasn’t – only Gocha was going there.
The only man left for Gocha to beat now was Martin Richards, a strong and experienced British driver who was on form and ready to deny the newcomer the podium top step prize.
This time Gocha led first and produced a solid run while Richards made a few small errors in chase. When the Brit led, Gocha chased well, but in the last meters of the battle he got too close to the back of the Driftworks Nissan Skyline and had to brake, which ultimately resulted in a huge correction – enough to forfeit the win.
It was very close, but a well-deserved victory for Richards.
Given how close Gocha came to tasting victory in Riga on his first dance in the Drift Masters European Championship, I can’t help but wonder if he’ll return next year for a full assault on the series…
Whatever happens, it was great to see the Russian giant showcase his skills in front of Europe’s best drifters, and the spectators loved it. “Gocha” was the chant coming from the grandstands.