What an event! I hate to start an article with such a simple statement, but here we are. There’s just no other way to do justice to all that transpired during this year’s final competition round of Formula D, nor the culmination of the most tumultuous—and at times contentious—season it embodied. To call it all a rollercoaster ride of emotions would be just too cliche, so I’ll refrain, but you get the picture. Here’s why.
2019 Was Just About Anyone’s Game
Throughout the year’s eight competition rounds, no fewer than six drivers looked poised to take season championship honors. Odi Bakchis shocked the drifting world not only with back-to-back wins in the season’s first two rounds at Long Beach and Orlando, but with solid driving, a solid crew, and a solid vehicle in the form of his Falken Tire-backed supercharged V8 S14.5—a magic combo he’d been striving to find, but narrowly missed for too long.
But then a few things happened all at once. Past champ Fredric Aasbø and perennial threat Ryan Tuerck traded off wins and runner-up finishes at Rounds 3 and 4, with defending and repeat champion James Deane capturing third place in both events.
By Round 5 in Monroe, WA, we finally saw the Worthouse Drift effort once again reach full boil, with a win from Wiecek and a runner-up from Deane, to our boy Dai in Third, who was also technically eligible for a champ steal! And if that wasn’t enough, the following round in St. Louis saw Deane, Aasbø, and Wiecek earn first through third, respectively, followed by another second from Deane and a third from Forsberg at the penultimate Round 7 in Texas.
James Deane once again emerged as the top contender for Championship honors heading into Irwindale. But Aasbø, Odi, Wiecek, and Forsberg were still very much in the running, with any number of wins, upsets, or freak failures able to lead to their eventual victory.
Irwindale: Where Most Dreams Die
Well, that title sounded pretty dark, so here’s a fun fact: the word “decimate” descends from Latin, where in the times of Ancient Rome, it meant to kill one-tenth of an army’s soldiers. In that vein, the House of Drift more than decimated the competition field—it straight massacred it, with roughly one-third of the Top 32 qualifying cars incurring substantial damage at Irwindale’s walls throughout this final event, many unable to continue.
Some of the weirder hits were in Top 32, where Joao Barion’s repeat practice and Top 32 wall hits left his C7 Corvette unable to continue against Forsberg; Jeff Jones’ unfortunate wall hit in a One More Time (OMT) round that might’ve otherwise knocked out Odi; and Travis Reeder and Ryan Litteral’s simultaneous, independent, wall hits in their second tandem run.
Chris Forsberg’s championship dreams were over the moment Deane put a Qualifying score on the boards, but he soldiered on nonetheless, looking for a strong finish to cap off an otherwise positive season. He survived Joao’s wall hit in Top 32, but suffered one of his own against bud Vaughn Gittin Jr. in Top 16 and exited track left.
Unfortunately, Daijiro Yoshihara’s season-long curse as a contact magnet did not break in Irwindale, with his Turn 14 Distribution/Falken Tire Toyota 86 painting the Irwindale walls a bit after following Chelsea DeNofa into them in the duo’s first Top 16 battle. He did get the win after staying clear of danger on his lead lap, while Chelsea hit the wall in almost the same place yet again (no doubt damaged by his first hit), ending the event for himself after some killer practice and qualifying laps, we must note!
Heading into Top 16, Fredric, Piotr, and Odi each had a chance to take home the championship if Deane went out in Top 16. If that happened, Fredric would have to stay alive past Top 8 to take it, but Piotr and Odi each had to win the event to take it for themselves.
Odi furthered his chances by staying alive in his Top 16 battle against Taguchi. If that wasn’t exciting enough, Aasbø and Piotr met each other in Top 16 and put on one of the most talked-about battles of the event.
After a very clean lead run by Piotr that saw a minor correction on his part, and an equally clean lead from Fredric Aasbø with a much more aggressive (if a little messy) follow from Piotr, the judges unanimously—and somewhat unexpectedly—gave Piotr the advance and dashed Fredric’s championship hopes, yet again by a very small margin.
Amid Controversy, A Champion Is Crowned
Sit in any FD driver’s meeting, watch the live stream of any FD event, or peruse the FD site, and you’re bound to learn that Speed, Angle, Line, and Style are the criteria by which competition runs are judged, with Speed accounting for the smallest number of points. You’ll notice “proximity” is missing from the judging criteria. While not explicitly named, it’s bunched somewhere in with Style and seems to have a varying degree of significance in judges’ minds.
Enter the Worthouse Drift team, whose stock-in-trade seems to be speed and proximity. These guys make it their mission to stick to the door of almost anyone, or go down trying. Fans love it, and judges seem to reward it more than strategies focusing more on style and line. Piotr’s door-sticking chase of Fredric earned him the advance despite numerous corrections, and Deane’s battles with Forrest Wang would prove the point even more so.
Forrest was all that stood in the way of James Deane and his championship intentions in Top 16. Two very precise, capable drivers, who have each beaten the other in the past, in very similar 2JZ-powered S15 Silvia machines, but with different styles — put simply, speed and proximity versus line and style.
Each driver led their first battle with solid and consistent runs high on the banks, with lots of angle and style, but with Forrest running just a hair slower and lower, seeming to ride the brakes at the end of each drift to crank out just a little more angle.
In the follow position, Forrest yielded some proximity to keep that deep angle, while Deane nearly straightened in his follow run to keep his speed up and maintain proximity.
All the while, the tension in the stands and the pits alike was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Fans shouted for OMTs, while crews—and probably drivers—were eager for the chips to fall in their favor.
If each driver’s differences were what led to the judges calling for not one, but two OMT battles, they only became more pronounced in each bout, with each man seeming to double down on what he knew best. A sharply divided crowd cheered for their team, and when the eventual verdict was rendered, a sharply contrasting mix of elation and despair filled the air.
Nevertheless, a champion had emerged; only the second to score back-to-back championship wins, and the first to three-peat in FD history—in his first three years competing on American soil—all less than a month after winning the unaffiliated Drift Masters European Championship series in Europe.
Through the numbers, James Deane had become the world’s best drifter, by an impressive margin.
First to congratulate him: teammate and rival championship contender Piotr Wiecek, followed by recent repeat championship hopeful Fredric Aasbø. If that’s not professionalism, we’re not sure what is.
But Wait—There’s More!
With the anxiety and excitement of the championship chase behind, there was still most of the event to be run. Former champ Michael Essa dispatched former champ Vaughn Gittin Jr.; James Deane stayed alive against Ryan Tuerck, and Ken Gushi put an end to Wiecek’s run after an OMT and an uncharacteristic spin and incomplete by Wiecek.
Top 4 began with Odi seeming to get a bit confused by the slightly lower and slower Michael Essa around the big bank, falling off line, spinning and hitting the wall in much the same way as Wiecek, handing Essa a seat in the Finals.
Ken Gushi laid down fire lead and follow runs in his Top 4 battle against Deane — high, deep, fast, and close, with far fewer corrections in his follow than Deane had in his. After a clean follow of Deane, the upset was complete, and Essa had met his match.
Finally … The Finals
If Ken’s breakout, 110-percent-commitment runs in the Top 4 threw James Deane for a loop, I can’t blame him. Ken’s uber-talented and an absolute OG in FD, but he hadn’t won an event in 14 years. Michael Essa has more wins under his belt (along with the 2013 FD Championship title) but has also had a rough few recent seasons. The point is that both were statistical long shots to make it this far in competition, and I think both were a little uncertain with how best to proceed against one another.
In the first Final run of the event, Ken laid down another killer lead run with the same speed and aggression as we saw him fend off James Deane, but Michael Essa was right there—even coming into the second bank a little too hot and miraculously avoiding contact with the wall and Ken.
But then Essa initiated a little slower on his lead run, prompting some contact from Gushi (who was still in the Deane mindset, no doubt), and then over-rotated entering the second bank, handing Ken a more elusive victory, and harder-fought, than any other we can remember.
With 2019 squarely in the rearview mirror for FD, we’re left wondering what new tactics and strategies will emerge in 2020, among a sizeable group of competitors worthy of retaking the title. Or, whether the drifting world’s newest GOAT will simple dine on their best efforts. Stay with Front Street Media through SEMA and the annual FD press conference, and for more related content throughout the off-season.