Formula Drift finished the season at Irwindale, and Vaughn Gittin Jr. was crowned the 2020 Formula Drift championship
After 6 of 8 rounds of the COVID-impacted 2020 Formula Drift season, four of the top five contenders for the championship were sitting on Nitto Tires. Lead by Vaughn Gittin Jr. at the top with Ryan Tuerck just 8 points behind, Chris Forsberg in third place in the championship series was the lone driver in the top three who didn’t have Nitto Tires under each corner of the car. Rounding out the Top 5, Chelsea Denofa sat in 4th with Fredric Aasbo in 5th overall entering the weekend.
The Formula Drift series has historically ended their series at Irwindale Speedway ever since their first season back in 2004, but unfortunately for 2020, the current state and local restrictions would require the competition to take place without spectators. Formula Drift implemented a special “Fan Zone” Zoom meeting for a small portion of fans, following in the footsteps of several other professional sports leagues that have attempted to bring the expressions of fans into the closed-door experience. As we recapped in our Spectator’s Guide to the 2020 Season article, Formula Drift ran double-header weekends with two rounds of PRO competition each weekend. For the final round, Formula Drift adjusted the schedule slightly, shifting the first round of the weekend to Friday, allowing the final round of Pro 2 competition to take place on Saturday, and returning to the 8th and final round of PRO competition on Sunday to give those who are in contention for the championship a day off in between to ensure the maximum performance of their vehicles. The change did allow a few drivers to adjust their strategy for Sunday, which kept the championship chase interesting to the end.
Friday Round 7
After winning Round 6 in Texas, Chris Forsberg drew number 2 out of the random seeding hat, which meant he and Vaughn Gittin Jr. would flip seeding ranks, but all other drivers would be slotted into the tandem ladder based on how they finished at the last round. This gave Gittin Jr. (Q1), Forsberg (Q2), Denofa (Q3), and Adam LZ (Q4) bye runs in the Top 32 round, while Fredric Aasbo (Q5) and Ryan Tuerck (Q6) would face Alec Robbins and Kyle Mohan respectively. The Top 32 round went smoothly for Tuerck and Aasbo, which ensured they still had a chance at the championship. While Odi Bakchis was an early leader in the championship after the first competition weekend in St. Louis, a few tough finishes pushed him out of championship contention. The weekend would not start off any better for Bakchis as he lost his Top 32 tandem battle with Dan Burkett. Most other tandem battles went as expected in the Top 32.
The Top 16 round would be the first major shakeup to the championship chase with the last tandem battle of the round. Gittin Jr. started the Top 16 round off with a win over Jhonnattan Castro, and Fredric Aasbo would earn the victory over Dean Kearney in his tandem battle and Chelsea Denofa defeated Matt Field in his Top 16 tandem battle. Chris Forsberg would be the first to end his championship pursuit of the day by respectfully bowing out of his Top 16 battle with Michael Essa. Forsberg had a mechanical failure on Thursday in his normal competition car, and pulled out his backup demo car in order to earn the Top 32 bye run victory. That backup car had substantially less horsepower, and facing a capable opponent in Essa, Forsberg made the difficult decision to bow out of competition rather than put Essa or himself in the risky position of being down on power and potentially causing an accident. Ryan Tuerck’s day would also end in the Top 16 round as he collided with the wall midway through the banking, allowing Travis Reeder to earn the victory when the damage was beyond repairable within the 5 minute allowable window.
Moving into the Great 8, Gittin Jr. would defeat Taylor Hull in his matchup, Aasbo would defeat Adam LZ, Essa would defeat Kazuya Taguchi, and Denofa would take out Reeder, setting the stage for three of the four final drivers all still contending for the championship. Appropriately, Gittin Jr. and Aasbo would need a “One More Time” round to settle their Final 4 battle, with both drivers knowing the championship implications. Unfortunately, Gittin Jr. would get lost in the smoke of Aasbo’s Supra and over-rotated while transitioning coming off the bank, which gave the win to Aasbo and closed down the championship lead. On the other side of the bracket, Denofa would also get lost in the smoke and drop two tires off the prescribed drifting line around the final sweeper, giving Essa the win into the final round.
Unfortunately, Gittin Jr. got lost in the smoke behind Denofa and crashed midway through the bank, which gave Denofa the final spot on the podium. In the championship battle, Aasbo found enough to earn the victory over Essa. In the winner’s circle interview, Aasbo noted that the Papadakis Racing team helped him find an extra 150hp since the last rounds in Texas for his Toyota Supra race car, which was already pushing 1,000 horsepower to the rear wheels prior to this event. Aasbo revealed that he may have blown the motor while doing celebratory donuts, which meant he had some explaining to do to the team ahead of the Sunday final round of competition.
Sunday Round 8
In the post-race seeding draw, Aasbo drew #10, which shook up several of the tandem battles for Sunday. By sheer luck, this slotted Ryan Tuerck into the top qualifying position with a bye into the Top 16 round, and also gave Chris Forsberg a bye in the Q2 position. Gittin Jr. and Denofa would slot into Q7 and Q8, on opposite sides of the bracket, facing Mohan and Faruk Kugay respectively.
Aasbo’s Q10 position slotted him against Ryan Litteral. In a pre-race interview, Aasbo revealed that they not only had to swap a motor after the Friday Night celebration, but they had rod knock in the warm-up prior to taking practice, which meant the team had to swap to a third motor between the morning practice and ahead of the Top 32 tandem round, which they finished just in the nick of time! Entering the Sunday competition, Vaughn Gittin Jr. led the championship chase by 40 points, with Aasbo another 20 points behind that, and Denofa sitting another 20 points behind Aasbo. Forsberg had been statistically eliminated from the championship, sitting 96 points back but with only 84 points available to him by winning the event, even if Gittin Jr. lost in the Top 32.
Tuerck’s Top 32 bye run went off without a hitch, and Denofa earned a victory over Kugay in his tandem battle. Forsberg showed up to his Top 32 bye run in a vehicle he borrowed from Matt Field as his team drove to Northern California to pickup Field’s former Nissan S14.5 competition car shortly after the event finished on Friday, and Forsberg tested in the vehicle on Saturday at another race track to give him the best chance of improving his final results of the season as possible. Forsberg made a pass to earn the win in his Top 32 bye, and Gittin Jr. won his tandem battle with Mohan shortly after that. Unfortunately, Aasbo’s pursuit of the championship ended when he crashed into the wall against Litteral, mis-judging the grip level on the track after missing all of practice awaiting the engine swap. For the top 16 round, Tuerck would be up against rookie Jonnathan Nerren, Denofa would face Essa, Forsberg would face Bakchis, and Gittin Jr. would face Litteral. Gittin Jr.’s win in the Top 32 would eliminate Denofa from championship contention, narrowing the chase down to just two drivers between Gittin Jr. and Tuerck.
After Top 16 opening ceremonies, Tuerck vs. Nerren was the first tandem battle up on the schedule. Tuerck’s night would end much earlier than he hoped as he made contact with Nerren while chasing him down in an area deemed to be a “momentum zone,” meaning that the lead car is allowed to adjust their momentum if necessary and the trailing driver should be prepared to adjust accordingly. Tuerck was unable to make that adjustment, which deemed him at fault for the collision. Since Tuerck started the day 40 points behind Gittin Jr., he needed to finish at least two rounds further than Gittin Jr, and the loss effectively ended his challenge for the championship. Upon hearing the judge’s decision in Tuerck’s tandem battle, Gittin Jr. was named the 2020 champion, his second career Formula Drift championship to go with his 2010 championship. Gittin Jr. joins James Deane (2019, 2018, 2017), Forsberg (2009, 2016, 2014), Tanner Foust (2008, 2007), and Sam Hubinette (2006, 2004) as the fifth multi-time champion of Formula Drift. The championship is also the first for Nitto Tires, as Gittin Jr. used the Nitto NT555 G2 tires for all rounds of competition.
Championship Decided, but the Show Continues
After a brief pause and recognition of Gittin Jr.’s championship lock, Denofa was the next driver out in competition and was able to defeat Essa to avenge his loss on Friday. Forsberg would narrowly lose his battle against Bakchis, while Gittin Jr. would defeat Litteral. At that point, it became apparent that three Nitto Tire drivers would occupy the top four positions in the final standings, although the exact order would depend on the final event standings.
In the Top 8 round, Denofa would defeat Nerren, Jeff Jones defeated Taylor Hull, Bakchis ended Gittin Jr.’s evening of competition, and Justin Pawlak would take out Ken Gushi. In the Final 4, Denofa would defeat Jones, which moved Denofa into second in the championship picture and guaranteed that the Ford Mustang RTR team would occupy the top two positions in the championship standings. On the other side of the bracket, Bakchis defeated Pawlak. Pawlak would beat Jones in the consolation round to earn the final podium of the season, and Bakchis would earn the event win over Denofa to end the season on a high note after sliding out of championship competition earlier in the season.
The podium by Denofa was the 15th podium of the season for Nitto Tire, and the 4th podium of the season for Denofa (including a win at Round 2 in St. Louis, and three consecutive podiums at the final three events). When the final championship standings were tallied up, Vaughn Gittin Jr. finished the season with a 40 point lead over his teammate Denofa, Tuerck sat 16 points further behind Denofa, and Aasbo finished 36 points behind Tuerck and a total of 92 points behind Gittin Jr. Gittin Jr. was thankful to the entire team and all of the partners who helped make the championship happen, and was regretful that he couldn’t be celebrating in person with the fans who had to watch from the livestream.
Formula Drift’s 2020 season was a wild one! Stay tuned for more content coming soon with the newly-crowned 2020 Formula Drift Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. !