I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that we’re already beyond the halfway point of the 2017 Formula Drift season.
It only feels like a few weeks ago that James Deane and Piotr Więcek informed me of their intention to contest a whole FD season for the first time. It was actually September of last year, and the months since have been an absolute whirlwind. From the highest of highs, to some pretty significant lows, it has been a rollercoaster so far.
For the fifth round, the travelling circus headed north and to the only stop outside of the United States. Autodrome Saint-Eustache probably isn’t the first venue you think of when it comes to drifting, but the Montreal-based circuit is a haven for drifting talent.
The family run facility might be modest, but it more than makes up for it in character while also supplying a demanding course for the Formula D roster.
It was in Canada last year, that James and Piotr made the decision to campaign Formula Drift. While it wasn’t their first visit to the track, it was their first time driving it. As has been the way with most rounds this season, getting as much seat time on unfamiliar courses has been paramount.
As if the competition isn’t tough enough already, one must try and negate any advantage your rivals have with regards to course knowledge and setup. There’s a steep learning curve when it comes to being competitive in this series, which isn’t something that might seem obvious from the outside.
It doesn’t help that the drivers are amongst the best there is.
Along with some of the most technically advanced drift cars on the planet.
Not for the first time this season, Piotr would be sidelined for a significant portion of Thursday’s practice session with mechanical issues.
Piotr just can’t seem to catch a break so far this season. He’s still the highest ranked rookie in the series despite the issues he’s had at several events, and leads the likes of Forsberg, Denofa, Pawlak and Gushi even after this event.
I just can’t wait for when it all comes together for Piotr, and I’m sure he can’t wait either. He’s so much more than just the driver of the other Worthouse car.
He did eventually get out, but had significantly less running time on course than his team mate. From the outside, you’d be hard pressed to know though.
With the sun setting on the short oval/drag strip/road course hybrid venue, it wrapped up what was ultimately a fairly uneventful day for the Worthouse crew, small mechanical issues aside. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be in complete contrast to the rest of the weekend.
Friday July 14th
Friday started like any other day that involved an interview for the Discovery Channel. The skies were threatening from dawn, with the various smartphone apps offering varying predictions but one certainty: it was going to rain.
If I remember correctly, the forecast had predicted a dry afternoon but a wet qualification. What we got was a wet everything.
It wasn’t just a drizzle either, but a proper deluge of water from the skies which was relentless.
It played havoc with pretty much everything. The autograph session was moved indoors, and when practice eventually commenced, there were no cars on the start line. We ended up having a small river running through our tent.
The drivers waited, conferring with each other to see who was going to go out first.
Their apprehension was understandable, which I’ll explain next. With the rain easing, but the course still saturated despite the efforts of the crew, slowly cars made their way out.
Drifting in the rain isn’t quite like other forms of motorsport, where you can run a ‘wet’ line which typically avoids the rubbered-in sections of the course.
With drifting there is only one line, and it is supremely rubbered in. As such, it’s not only treacherous but also painfully slow.
It appeared to me that the European drivers on the grid adapted to the conditions much quicker, but then they do for the most part have significantly more experience with wet tracks. The only issue now was that instead of being wet/wet, it was starting to dry in certain sections. Most drivers will tell you that while either extreme is manageable, it’s these half and half conditions that prove the most difficult.
The final practice session led immediately into qualifying, when the course was maybe at its most unpredictable. From the shelter of the Worthouse and Bridges Racing pit, both James and Piotr watched the first drivers of qualifying put down their first runs.
Each driver would get a feeler lap, before an immediate second run which would count as their first qualifying lap.
The course would quickly dry out in full throttle zones, but remain slippery through transitions and deceleration areas.
As has been the way all season, Piotr was the first of the red, white and blue S15s through the course. He kept it tidy, simple and earned a 71 for his troubles. This was during a set of runs which saw five other drivers score zeroes.
Running last, James went provisionally to the top of the standings with a text book qualifying run of 88 points.
The course continued to evolve as the sun began to vanish beneath the horizon, with scores starting to creep up as the drivers pushed the limit.
Piotr’s second run could well have been the run of the weekend, only for a slight error taking the edge off. He would earn an 86 and cement his place in the battles with a bye run into the Top 16.
While it might look a straightforward course with no real banking to speak of, Autodrome Saint-Eustache has its nuances which can punish even the best drivers.
The first corner isn’t quite a perfect radius, and the wall which lines it has edges which protude into the course. Rub the wall in the wrong place and you can be sucked in, as Ryan Tuerck found out on his second qualifying run.
He wasn’t the first victim and he most certainly wouldn’t be the last over the remainder of the weekend. The crowd showed some real appreciation for Ryan, which I’m sure helped provide the motivation required to get it all back together again in time for the main event.
With the benefit of a dry track, James was the last to put a qualifying lap down. He couldn’t quite improve on his original run, which factored in the trickier conditions, but still managed an 85. Combined with his first run score of 88, he narrowly beat Kristaps Bluss’ scores 88 and 82 and Justin Pawlak’s 88 and 0 runs.
It would be James’ first time topping qualifying in Formula Drift.
His enjoyment of the moment would be short lived though. The car had been struggling with transmission issues late in the day, which would require the gearbox and clutch assembly to pulled from the car to be inspected.
What could have been a night of celebration, instead became a late night of repairs. The suspect was a failing pilot bearing, but the only way to know for certain was to pull everything and check. I don’t think the team had plans anyway…
Saturday July 15th
I often feel a certain amount of guilt at events like this, especially when embedded inside a team. While the mechanics and crew work a car over late at night in the cold, I’m usually sat in a warm room somewhere tapping away on a laptop. We both have different jobs, and serve the team in different ways, but I’m almost ashamed that I can’t pitch in and help, even if I wanted to.
When we arrived at the track on Saturday morning, the cars were both undergoing final checks before one last practice session prior to the battles commencing. The drivers and their respective crew chiefs and spotters headed for one last briefing.
The pilot bearing had been changed in James’ car, but it had destroyed the new clutch that was only fitted a few weeks prior.
Piotr’s car was in perfect working order, but his crew were taking no chances and double checking everything on their considerable check lists.
The hours before track action begins are usually either tedious or frantic. In this case, tedious is a good thing as it means everything is ready and under control. It’s rare that you can find 10 minutes to sit down and chat over the course of a competition weekend, so you might as well make the most of it while you can.
Any seat will do, of course.
It was during this one last practice session where things took a rather unexpected turn.
I returned to the pit to change some lenses around for the Top 32 battles, to be greeted by the sight of the Oracle Lighting Dodge Viper being unloaded – very badly, it must be added – into our pit.
Dean ‘Karnage’ Kearney (small hands, smells like cabbage), the third driver under the Worthouse x Bridges Racing banner, had suffered differential failure during one last run before the battles started. Fortunately, Kearney’s battle was on the right side of the bracket, which bought his team some time to make the required repairs.
It was frantic, but it was obvious from early on that the repair would be made in time. However, the real problem of this particular time period was also on the back of a recovery truck, heading towards the very same pit area…
This time it was Piotr’s S15.
Leading from Dai Yoshihara on another one last run of practice, the 2JZ S15 briefly understeered on the first part of the course, before making heavy contact with the wall along the car’s right side. It was the sort of accident that was witnessed multiple times over the course of the weekend.
The difference here was that Piotr was required to make a bye run at the Top 32 stage of the event, and he was scheduled to be the third ‘battle’ of the proceedings. Even as the car was being unloaded, all eyes were already on the clock.
Understandably, Piotr was devastated at what was unfolding. It should have been a straightforward run into the Top 16, but he was now fighting for his survival.
Initial inspections were made, with one half of the team calling for the required replacement parts. Suspension arms, front and rear, had either been broken clean in half or bent beyond use. The front coilover was bent too, as was the front subframe. The car had taken a major impact.
It was around this point that the best part of drifting shined through. Justin Pawlak was first on the scene to offer advice; for the sake of his bye run, Piotr just needed to drive the course, which would buy him a couple of hours more to fix the car. In other words, the repairs didn’t have to be complete and perfect, just enough for the car to make a safe pass of the course.
As it was apparent that he wouldn’t make it to the line for his bye run, the dreaded five-minute rule clock appeared, for the second time in two events. I hate that clock.
For any outsiders, I’m sure it was great entertainment. For anyone invested in the team, it was stomach churning.
The crowd gathered as the repairs began to be carried out.
Piotr was helpless as he could only look on. I can’t explain to you just how good a guy he is, and how seeing him in this situation is just heartbreaking.
With the fourth battle of the Top 32 headed to the line, and Piotr having officially not made it their, an official competition time out was called.
There would be just five minutes to get the car on the ground and driving, and not a second more. Unfortunately, you can’t argue with time.
With the clock ticking down, more and more crew swapped from one side of the pit to the other to try and get the car back in action. Other drivers including Kearney and JTP, along with their respective crews, were pitching in at this stage.
With 90 seconds to go, and the front right corner still missing from the car, a decision was made to retire the car before the clock ran out. The repairs had become so frantic, that the team didn’t want to risk someone being hurt for what had become a futile exercise.
Piotr’s event was over in perhaps the cruelest fashion.
Still, he would personally thank everyone who had tried to save his weekend before taking a few minutes to himself.
The car will live to see another day, and Piotr was unharmed, which are the two most important things to take from such a dramatic period of time.
Despite it all, it wasn’t long before he was back out talking, smiling and laughing with fans. Piotr’s a two-time champion in Poland, he’s used to winning and is the only person I’ve seen that’s regularly put it to James in Europe, so I would expect him to be upset with had happened. To come back out and interact with everyone in the manner that he did, shows what he’s really made of.
The moment he gets even the slightest bit of luck, he’s going to be on top of that podium. Mark my words.
With the sun setting one last time, James headed to the grid as the sole Worthouse driver. He has successfully made it to every Top 16 stage of the competition this season. After two and a half days of practice and qualifying, his weekend would come down to these last few hours and four potential battles.
As first place qualifier, James would get the Top 16 underway leading against an on-form Dai Yoshihara.
Honestly, I don’t think anyone on earth can faze James Deane when he’s leading, unless they make enough physical contact to spin the car out. Dai’s chase was excellent however; he maintained decent proximity which only got better as the run went on.
With the drivers reversed, James immediately got onto Dai’s door and maintained a similar proximity throughout the course.
There was very little in it, but the judges deemed that because James had initiated stronger and was on Dai’s door for longer, it was enough to send him through to the Top 8.
As the track cooled and started to grip up, it caught a lot of drivers off guard. The result was one of the most chaotic Top 16s that I’ve ever witnessed. Chelsea DeNofa exited the competition after hitting the wall while chasing Marc Landreville and removed a wheel in the process.
Kearney and Matt Field had a collision which sent Field head-first into the outside wall and forced both drivers to make extensive repairs to their cars for the second half of the battle. This would ultimately see Field advance, despite his car falling off the recovery truck before repairs commenced.
Tuerck would crash while leading against Ken Gushi, and take both drivers completely out of the competition.
By the time James returned to the line for his Top 8 battle with Robbie Nishida, another three drivers would have retired from the event, completely blowing the bracket on the right side of the grid open.
The battle against Nishida would be a straightforward affair, with the judges unanimously awarding James the win and advancing him to the Top 4 and a guaranteed podium finish.
Another casualty of the event would be the Mustang RTR of Vaughn Gittin Jr., who lost an oil pump belt and ran the majority of his bye run with no oil pressure. As one of his crew could be heard over the radio on the livestream saying, “one of those carbon trophies isn’t worth 65 grand, right?”, the Mustang RTR team would retire the car as a precautionary measure. With just two weeks until the next event, it was very much the right decision, but of little consolation to Vaughn who had fought hard to overturn a poor qualification.
The result of this retirement would send Latvian Kristaps Bluss straight into the final.
The battle that could have significant impact on the chase for the championship was Deane versus Fredric Aasbø in the Top 4, the first time that both drivers have met in competition in Formula Drift.
Deane would lead the two into battle and put in another world class lead run, which Aasbø was able to follow superbly. Both drivers giving it their all, with no games, is exactly what drifting is about.
With Aasbø leading, James would get right on around the bank and follow him up the straight and past the inside clipping point. After this, it all started to go wrong. Blinded by the smoke, Deane ran wide and allowed Aasbø to open a big gap, which comfortably gave the win to the yellow Corolla iM. First blood of this rivalry goes to the Norwegian Hammer.
Aasbø would face Bluss in another all-European final. Interestingly, of the 15 potential podium places so far this season, including this round in Montreal, 12 of those places have been occupied by non-US drivers. 10 Europeans, one Peruvian and one Japanese driver – it’s a staggering statistic.
The final would be another cut and dry decision for the judges, with Bluss making contact with Aasbø and handing victory to the best looking man in Formula Drift.
The celebrations on the podium were enjoyed by all. With this victory, Aasbø has officially won more FD events than any other driver in the championship’s history. Bluss made it to the podium for the third time in three rounds, and has put himself right into the middle of the championship fight. Deane maintains a 34-point lead at the top of the points standings and another carbon fibre trophy is on its way back to Ireland.
As they say, you can’t win them all.
It’s only in losing, that you learn the most about a driver. How they deal with the loss is more important than how they deal with a win, in my opinion. It’s a true test of character. Do they blame someone else or take it out on their crew? Do they feign an injustice or do they take the defeat with grace and congratulate their opponent, appreciating how fortunate they are to be competing at the very top of the sport. I’m proud to say that I know which type of drivers I’ve been fortunate enough to be embedded with this season.
Congratulations Fredric, Kristaps and James on your results in Montreal. Five down, three more to go. We’ll see you shortly in Seattle.
Cutting Room Floor