It wasn’t the weekend that the team wanted, but it was the weekend that the team got.
Heading into the fourth round of the 2017 Formula Drift championship, James Deane held a commanding lead in the championship race, with fellow Irishman Dean Kearney in second place. James’ teammate, Piotr Więcek, was the highest ranked rookie in the series. It was a great start to the season.
Wall Stadium Speedway has somewhat of a cult following in Formula Drift circles. It’s a little bit rough around the edges but the compact nature of the venue was welcome after the vastness of Road Atlanta. It’s an intimate venue, but one that needs to be taken seriously.
For a change, I beat the Worthouse x Bridges Racing team to the venue but when I arrived on Thursday morning, everything was ready to rock. I never tire of seeing the twin S15s sat beside each other in the pit.
In the workshop portion of the truck, the drivers were having a meeting to arrange the logistics of team communication over the course of the weekend.
For the first event this season, James would be without the advice and counsel of his valued spotter, Michael Sheehan. It’s a huge commitment to try and attend every round of Formula Drift when travelling from Europe, for both drivers and crew alike. Rounds two, three and four all fell within the space of six weeks, which made it an even tougher task.
It would fall to Kearney’s spotter, Brandon McDowell, to keep a watchful eye on both Irish drivers over the weekend. It was a big challenge, but one that was taken with full enthusiasm.
Also for the first time, Piotr would have his own spotter, with his father making the long trip from Poland to help him. Piotr speaks absolutely perfect English, but in the heat of the moment, it’s always going to be more beneficial to hear your own language over the radio.
With no Pro 2 event running, Thursday was filled with PR duties and an absolute abundance of practice on the banked track.
Also, being in New Jersey, the food at the truck was perfectly suited to the venue.
This would be both James’ and Piotr’s first visit to Wall, the second of the banked circuits on the Formula Drift circuit. There’s been lots of talk about how they would cope with the banked tracks, but the truth is, neither driver has any extra concern that they would have with any other new course.
From the first few runs, both drivers looked extremely comfortable. As the track rubbered in, their confidence only increased.
James was initiating early using his preferred feint style, and running high on the bank the whole way around.
Piotr was on a similar vibe, working on perfecting his line over the course of the four-hour open practice session.
It was a long, fast and technical course layout, with three inside clips, two outside zones, a touch and go, and four transitions.
The biggest issue, and one which all drivers faced, was the smoke screen from the lead car. In particular, when coming off the bank, the drivers were completely blind and were driving on instinct and hope as they literally couldn’t see a thing until they came through the smoke cloud. James told me that more than once he came out of said smoke cloud only to discover that he was on the completely wrong part of the track.
Smoke aside, it was a very positive Thursday for both drivers.
With so much track time, a close eye was being kept on the cars, but as one would expect, they were performing flawlessly. A set of 295/40R18 Falken RT615K+ were comfortably lasting two runs, so that was one variable that didn’t need to be worried about. Two runs, refuel, fresh tyres and back out again was the pattern of the day.
I wish all events had this much practice; it’s not only beneficial for the drivers, but it means that the media can try out every angle and figure out what works best for each part of the competition.
It also offers a rare opportunity to watch an event, rather than looking at it through the narrow viewfinder. You start seeing more, like just how steep the banking is, even on the straight. Losing traction when accelerating towards the initiation point would cause a car to slide down the bank, so wheel spin needed to be controlled.
For the rest of the course, maximum wheel speed was required and almost guaranteed to be delivered every time.
All in all, it was as straightforward a day as one could hope for. Well, straightforward up to the point when it emerged that James Deane doesn’t like cold pizza. The world’s first 2JZ pizza oven?
Friday June 2nd
As is the way with these events, things gradually intensify in seriousness as each hour and day pass. Friday morning saw a fresh shipment of spare kits and parts arrive for both the cars. There is absolutely something so enjoyable about seeing the spares laid out like that, it’s the sort of professional approach that brings drifting forward.
As Piotr laughed, and James ducked under things, the second day of the event – but the first day of competition – got underway.
Par for the course, the day began with a mandatory driver’s briefing. I’ve no idea what happens in here.
The joy of post-drivers briefing was short lived. During a routine once-over on the car, it was discovered that James’ front left coilover was bent and leaking. It was presumed that the damage occurred during the final battle in Atlanta, but it was noticed when Odi Bakchis – who owns and operates FEAL suspension – was checking it out.
Although the car had felt fine during practice the day earlier, it immediately became a source of major concern. While it might be fine for another run or two, there was no way of knowing how quickly it would deteriorate or if it would fail completely.
The main part of the problem was that there was no spare front coilovers on site. Odi kindly offered his own to help, but he runs a shock with a longer stroke that wouldn’t suit James’ car.
It wasn’t a problem that could be rectified that day, so James would just have to drive and cross his fingers that it didn’t get any worse or fail completely. He knows his car inside and out, and strives to have everything perfect, so having this one thing wrong would definitely have weighed heavy on him.
There wasn’t much time to feel sorry for himself, nor would he ever have anyways, as one last practice session got underway just before qualifying.
It’s been interesting to watch James and Piotr familiarise themselves with new surroundings, new rivals and new circuits.
While they are definitely taking it seriously, they’re also having the times of their lives. There’s a genuine happiness to both of them when things are going their way, and to some extent even when they’re not.
Competitors in Formula Drift qualify in reverse championship order, so Piotr is usually the first of the Worthouse cars to put a lap in. His first qualifying run was solid, netting him an 83-point score. He wouldn’t make the line for his second run, as he de-beaded a front tire during his warm-up when he hit a lip in the concrete of the burnout box.
James, despite his suspension problem, didn’t hold back on either run. His first run earned him a 91-point scorecard.
His second scored even higher with 94-points, enough for 5th place and a bye-run into the Top 16 where he would face the winner between Alex Heilbrunn and Cameron Moore. Piotr would face Falken team-mate, Odi Bakchis in the Top 32.
It was another good day for both drivers, although I would have loved to see Piotr’s second run where he tends to push much harder. Still, both cars were in one piece and were ready to rock for the main event.
Saturday June 3rd
Up until Saturday morning, the weather had been both perfect and consistent; temperatures were ideal, there was a little breeze to help clear the smoke and it was dry. When I checked the weather on Friday night, it was supposed to be more of the same for Saturday, but I should have known better to trust the forecast. (Being Irish, I have a natural distrust of weather forecasts.)
The good news was that it was due to clear around the start of practice.
Even better news, was the arrival of a FedEx van in the paddock.
Armed with a package which was unmistakably for the team, I was curious as to how the delivery was addressed or how he managed to find us. Talk about going above and beyond. Thank you, Mr. FedEx man.
As a random aside, have you ever noticed the arrow in the negative space of ‘Ex’ in the FedEx logo? I really should be getting paid for this sh*t.
James’ mechanics had arrived early in order to get ready for the suspension change. Truth be told, it was a very straightforward swap.
Still, it was an important one nonetheless. With the issue fixed, it would be a huge relief to James.
Drivers briefing done – still no idea what goes on in there – and the final preparation for the cars was to add a small and neat tribute to Nicky Hayden on the C-pillars. Despite competing in completely different disciplines, it’s always nice to see the mutual respect between motorsport athletes.
Despite practice being underway, the majority of the field decided to opt out of the beginning of the session as the course continued to dry out. The few that ventured out, would soon regret it as the infield was more like an ice rink than a race track. The issue isn’t the rain, but rather how the water reacts with the layers of rubber and whatever else is lying on the surface of the course.
It did eventually dry out, and things soon got back to normal.
It’s always hard to gauge things in practice, but I was impressed with the speed of the two Worthouse cars. While they’re not the fastest or most powerful cars on the grid, they are there or thereabouts. There’s a lot of horsepower on this grid, being developed in such different ways. It’s not often that you see a four-cylinder developing more power than a 2JZ in drifting.
Despite what some F1 media often publish, there’s nothing to be won in practice. You can however, lose everything. Towards the end of the final practice session, Jhonnattan Castro was chasing Chelsea Denofa in what started harmlessly enough, but quickly turned into a driver’s worst nightmare. Coming off the bank, Denofa started to over-rotate and stall, but being completely blind in the smoke, Castro was oblivious to Denofa slowing.
The impact was huge, and brought Castro’s weekend to an immediate end. Luckily, neither driver was hurt.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, through no fault of his own, he was out. Afterwards, we briefly spoke and it just came down to being blinded in the smoke, and how every time it happens, the drivers are just hoping that when it clears, the lead car isn’t stopped.
Fortunately, for Denofa, he had a bye into the Top 16 so had ample time to repair the battered Mustang RTR.
The drama in practice was far from over, as on what would be the final run, Juha Rintanen inexplicably ploughed into Vaughn Gittin Jr. on the infield. The difference for Jr. versus his team mate Denofa, was that he did have a Top 32 battle, and was the third battle scheduled, which gave him maybe 20 minutes or so to get the car repaired.
With the stands filling, the battles commenced and the part of the weekend that we all wait for was underway.
Jr. did make it to the line, but drama, again, wasn’t too far away. Vaughn lead the Oracle Viper of Kearney on the first run, and as they reached the second outside zone on the infield, the Mustang ran onto the bank and spun. From my point of view, I couldn’t possibly have seen contact as I was behind the cars. The judges deemed that there was, which gave Jr. the advantage which he capitalised on to advance to the Top 16. It was maybe one of the biggest talking points of the weekend, so I’d like to throw my own view into the ring. Well, because I can.
Having watched and re-watched an angle filmed from the stands, there was certainly contact between the two cars. It was however slight, in my opinion. After the contact, the rear of the Mustang ran onto the bottom of the bank, Vaughn got on throttle and spun out. I think it all comes down to whether the contact from Kearney was enough to push the Mustang off line and onto the bank, or whether the Ford was heading there regardless. If the course was flat, I would expect a driver of Vaughn’s caliber to maintain his drift uninterrupted, but the banking adds a definite degree of uncertainty. The only one who will ever know if he could have held it or not is Vaughn, and in cases of such uncertainty, where it’s impossible to prove either way, I feel that a OMT should be called.
For the record, I’ve always maintained that drivers should be taken at their word.
With that out of the way, Więcek found himself up against Bakchis for the second time this season, having been beaten by Odi in Long Beach at Top 16.
From the off, Piotr showed the aggression that he’s renowned for in Europe, maintaining tight proximity to Odi around the course. It was a hugely promising start to the battle for the Pole. Unfortunately, as the cars rounded the final turn, Piotr completely lost drive. The car straightened and coasted across the finish line, Piotr with his hands raised inside the car.
Eventually bringing the car to a complete halt on the bank, it was obvious the S15 was going nowhere under its own power. With the engine still running and the sound of gears being engaged, but still no drive, the car was towed off course and back to the pit, where the team would call a 5-minute rule.
Pushing the car into the pit, Piotr’s side of the garage was joined by James’ and Dean’s in support. Also joining the fray, was Formula Drift Technical Director, Kevin Welles, and his digital clock. Under Formula Drift’s rules, the clock doesn’t start until the crew begin to work on it so they are free to take a minute to look first, gather parts and then get stuck in.
With the obvious culprits ruled out – driveshafts, prop shaft – it was deemed that the problem lay within the transmission. Knowing there was no way to remove and change a gearbox or clutch in the allotted time, the team retired the car long before the clock ran out.
Piotr was, understandably, devastated. He took little solace in the fact that he made no error and his retirement was completely out of his or any other person’s control.
Having to face the media in the immediate aftermath can’t be easy, but he did so.
The same could be said for facing the fans just a few minutes later, but again, Piotr did so with a genuine smile on his face. He’s a properly good guy, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone knows what he’s capable of.
With both cars being identical, there was the immediate worry that what Piotr suffered might happen to James’ car as well, so the issue needed to be solved and a decision made whether to make pre-emptive repairs to the sole remaining Worthouse car.
The initial suspect was the input shaft on the gearbox, but once it was removed and examined, it was deemed to be in perfect working order. The next potential offender was the clutch, and that’s exactly where the problem lay, as the friction material was all but absent. It was little comfort, but at least it wasn’t a transferable issue or an inherent flaw in the cars.
For the first time this season, James took the walk to the grid alone.
On a positive note, he went from a shared spotter to his own personal FD Pro class spotter in the shape of, Dean Kearney. I was worried that Dean wouldn’t be able to press the button on the radio with his huge shovel hands, but he seemed to have done alright.
James’ first battle was against Peruvian Alex Heilbrunn, who he defeated in the final at Long Beach. This time it would be a much easier victory for James, with Alex going off course on his lead run, allowing James to be first across the finish line on both runs.
That breeze that removed the smoke on previous days was absent during the Top 16, which dramatically slowed the progress of the event. To be fair, it’s not something that anyone has control over and if the judges can’t see, there’s no point in running.
If there was anyone I would have picked for James not to go up against in the Top 8, it was Kristaps Bluss. The Latvian had carried his momentum – and there was lots of it – with him to New Jersey. The HGK E46, despite the fact it’s about to be replaced imminently by their new E92, is an absolute rocket ship and Kristaps is a superb driver. A devastating combination.
While my heart wasn’t able to cope, it was a battle for the fans. Two no-nonsense drivers, going at it tooth and nail. If anything, it was an absolute spectacle to watch.
I didn’t envy the judges having to make a decision, but in the end they decided that Kristaps should advance to the Final 4. It was a decision that was greeted by derision in certain circles, but it was the right one.
By James’ own admission, he had made enough mistakes to warrant the loss, including missing third on the run-in to his lead run. He had no qualms about it and was still on a high, even stopping off at Kristaps pit to congratulate him on the way back to his own pit.
Rather than hide in the pits, he couldn’t get back trackside quickly enough to catch the rest of the event. If there’s one thing that I can say for absolute certain about James, is that he absolutely loves drifting.
If there was one man who truly deserved the win in New Jersey, it would be tough to argue against Odi Bakchis. He couldn’t have had a more difficult route to his victory. He lost a wheel in practice, he had to change an engine overnight which involved its entirely own set of dramas, he had to win his Top 16 battle against Tuerck twice, and as far as I know, his second engine expired as he crossed the finish line in the final.
Congratulations, Odi, from all of us at Speedhunters.
It might not have been the weekend the Worthouse team wanted, but it’s the one that they were dealt.
2017 has always been a learning year for the new team in the Formula Drift paddock, and I don’t think they could have made much more of an impact in their debut season. Still, despite the results, James still leads the championship having only had three points taken out of his lead – which now stands at 56 points ahead of Michael Essa – and Piotr remains the highest ranked rookie by 64 points.
Now at the halfway point – and a welcome mid-season break – talk will inevitably become more and more about the possibility of James winning the championship. I haven’t bothered to raise the subject of it with him, because I know what he’s going to say. It’s all about taking it one round at a time.
Cutting Room Floor