I feel very fortunate to be right in the midst of the formative years of a new motorsport.
While competitive drifting has been occurring for at least 20 years at this point, it’s maybe only in the last decade that it has begun to really find its feet. For some, however, it’s still the runt of the motorsport world.
I often wonder did NASCAR go through the same problems that drifting currently is as it struggled to legitimise itself. Both sports started on the roads and streets before progressing into formal motorsport after all. Where there those who decried those moonshine runners as sell outs, as those who had turned their back on what running moonshine was really about? One does wonder…
It maybe doesn’t help that drifting, as a form of organised motorsport, is so fragmented. Different countries with different series, different rules and different criteria don’t help a motorsport that is complex enough to understand in the first place.
Drifting is very nuanced, and as such doesn’t enjoy the clear-cut finality of who was first across the line. To the outsider, rather than try and comprehend it, they dismiss it out of hand. This might always be the way, and there’s really nothing that can be done at the moment to change how a winner is decided.
These nuances though are the very thing that make drifting so fascinating to watch; especially so at the very top level of the sport, where the smallest of errors is often enough to hand victory to your opponent. The problem is, these are often difficult enough for hardcore fans to spot, let alone a potential new audience.
As things stand, the challenge for organisers around the world is to make a complicated sport simple, without betraying its heritage and roots.
Not long before the respective 2017 seasons kicked off – in the Northern Hemisphere at least – the Irish Drift Championship announced a series of rule changes which it believed would go a long way to bringing the sport to a new audience. As the organisers of the IDC, the British Drift Championship and the Irish Amateur Drift Championship, these would be changes that would be implemented and felt on arguably the highest stage outside of the United States.
Its main aim, above all else, was to streamline the show for the fans. Less downtime, more action is the mantra behind these changes. Having trialled the changes over the winter months in the IADC and debuted them successfully at the first round of the BDC last month, I was curious to see them in effect, but in person.
With the first round of IDC practically on my door step, it was an easy decision to attend. Speaking to numerous drivers over the winter months, the same subject kept popping up time and again. What these rule changes were bringing for them was uncertainty.
In particular, the new tyre changing rule, the removal of ‘One More Time’ situations and the points punishment for using a five minute rule, of which each competitor is only allowed one per competition. Some of these rules aren’t new to the world of drifting, but they still contribute to a type of drifting that we’re maybe not familiar with.
A New Day
Practice and qualifying were as usual in Mondello Park last Sunday, as the new rules really only affect the battles. The course was one familiar to drivers and fans alike, running the first two corners of the circuit in reverse with the addition of two outside wall clips in front of the grandstand as the cars looped back around and over the finish line.
With many new builds, there were the associated teething issues. Maybe the biggest was reigning IDC champion, Duane McKeever, having to borrow a car for qualifying as his new RB-powered 180SX suffered engine failure right at the end of practice. The first time he drove the borrowed car would be on his first qualifying lap. His effort was admirable, but he just fell short of qualifying for the Top 24. Before the battles had begun, there was already a shake up.
Someone who was plagued by reliability issues in 2016 was 17-year-old Jack Shanahan. His BMW-powered S14 Silvia always seemed to be a bit of sick note last year, but this was remedied by upgrading to a 2JZ setup during the off season. His younger brother, 13-year-old Conor (fresh off an appearance on The Grand Tour), must have breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he could keep his own 2JZ 180SX upon his graduation into the Pro class, having won Pro-Am the day before.
Both brothers would comfortably make the battles, with Jack taking top spot with a simply brilliant 98-point run.
The real test would be the run from the Top 24 to the final. To briefly explain the Top 24 format, the top eight qualifiers automatically qualify for Top 16, with the remaining 16 drivers battling it out for the remaining eight places. Compared to a Top 32 round, it halves the number of battles. With less spots on the grid, it also ensures drivers push harder in qualifying.
By Top 16, we were back to familiar territory with a straightforward run to the final. There wasn’t much in the way of drama throughout the battles, with most decisions being clear-cut or made due to mechanical failures and subsequent retirements. It just meant that the focus was on the driving.
With the removal of One More Time, replaced instead with a One More Run, drivers were going for the jugular from the off. In the single situation where the judges called for a One More Run in the Top 16, the higher qualifier had the choice to lead or chase in one single run that would decide the battle.
This introduces a really interesting psychological aspect to the battle. With both drivers unable to change tyres, they must complete this One More Run on the tyres that they’ve just done battled on. If you’re the higher qualifier, you have a decision to make: Do you gamble that your tyres are better than your opponent and lead, hopefully leaving them for for dead as you power through the clipping points.
Similarly, if you think you have a grip advantage, you can force your rival to lead and stay glued to their door throughout the course.
On the other hand, if you know your tyres are completely done, you have little choice but to lead and hope that the chase car makes a mistake behind you. Or do you throw a curveball and chase regardless?
The aforementioned mechanical retirements all fell foul of exceeding the five minute rule. Not only were they retired from the event, they were also deducted a championship point to compound their misery.
Maybe the highlight of the event was both Shanahan brothers facing off in the Top 4. With a combined age of just 30 years old and over 1,000hp between them, it was far from your average sibling rivalry. Jack might have beaten his younger brother on this occasion, but I don’t think Conor is too far away from putting one over him. The talent of each driver has to be seen to be believed.
After their battle, both Shanahans would face competitors typically unfamiliar to this late stage of competition. This would be Anthony Galvin’s first Pro final, having struggled in 2016, but being a tour de force in Pro-Am in 2015. Maybe this is the year that he finally gets to shine? Similarly, Gary Dunne was just promoted to the Pro class for this season and found himself fighting it out for third place against Conor Shanahan.
Jack Shanahan would eventually take the win, after an error from Anthony Galvin forced the judges hand. Conor, too, would win his third place battle and ensure both brothers ended up on the podium. In doing so, he also gained his IDC Pro license. He’s 13.
And I’m Feeling Good
It’s hard to judge the impact these rules have made after just one event, but initial signs are positive: two new faces in the final four and a more streamlined – if not ruthless – event. I still think there’s progress to be made here, and I would personally love to see the complete abolition of the five minute rule which is maybe the last remaining hold-up to an event’s run time. I prefer Formula D’s judging when it comes to battles, where a lot more emphasis is placed on the lead car.
On the subject of Formula D, which I think is the benchmark series, it’s hard to compare both FD and IDC. I consider both to be – comfortably – the best championships that I’ve ever attended, but they’re very different at their core. Where Formula D enjoys the benefits of the US market and the vastly increased budgets that go along with it, IDC is very much a grassroots Pro series. As such, they both have to do things differently, but I think they both do them well. Neither series is perfect, but at the moment they’re leading the way.
On the whole, I think drifting series around the world are heading in the right direction. There’s infinitely more good than bad now, and while there’s probably still a lot of trial and error to come, we’re closer now to perfect recipe for drifting as a professional motorsport than we ever have been before.
And that can only be a good thing, right?
Cutting Room Floor