Formula Drift Long Beach 2018 Recap
Formula Drift recently kicked off their fifteenth season on the famed Streets of Long Beach street course. This world-renowned track has previously hosted Indycar, CART, ALMS, World Challenge, Formula E, Stadium Super Trucks and since 2006, the first stop of the Formula Drift Black Magic Pro Championship.
As the first round of the season, it served as a shakedown for several drivers who were debuting new cars, including Matt Field’s C6 Chevy Corvette and Fredric Aasbo’s 2019 Toyota Corolla.
Simultaneously, international competitors Kazuya Taguchi (Japan) and Federico Sceriffo (Italy) made their Formula Drift debuts, driving a Nissan R35 and Ferrari 599 GTB (which we featured on our site late last week), respectively.
Four Pro 2 graduates also made their Pro debut at Long Beach, with mumblings of several more launching their seasons in Orlando in a few weeks. While the initial weather report for the weekend had a strong chance of precipitation, Mother Nature cooperated and provided a weekend of clear skies and 70 degree temperatures to the satisfaction of the nearly 20,000 fans who came out to watch the event.
Long Beach Course Layout
The course at Long Beach is largely determined by the layout used for the Grand Prix the following weekend, which converts just under 2 miles of actual city streets into a world-renowned racing circuit. Formula Drift uses turns 9, 10, and 11 from the traditional Grand Prix layout, while using the back straight as the run up to initiation to hit nearly 80 mph prior to getting the car sideways.
After the drivers initiate into the 90-degree right hander, they are asked to push their cars all the way to the outside wall between turns 9 and 10 before transitioning back across the traditional racing line to brush the wall under the passenger bridge midway through the two turns. Keeping the throttle pinned, the natural drifting line pushes the cars to the outside wall again in front of turn 10 for a clipping zone in front of the judges' stand before drivers slow down and transition back to the left to position their cars on the right line for the tight hairpin around turn 11.
A clipping point at the peninsula of turn 11 is marked by an oversized Black Magic tire shine can, and drivers are allowed to nudge this clipping point slightly while in tandem but must avoid center-punching the car clip. As the cars naturally flow onto the front straightaway of the conventional racing circuit, their momentum will push them towards the outside wall one last time, and drivers are asked to keep the car sideways across the finish line in front of the general admission grandstands.
While only three turns on the track, the temporary nature of the course means actual traction levels can vary widely, and the tight nature of the solid concrete walls and catch fencing leaves no room for errors or mistakes. Most drivers have a love/hate relationship that is often tightly correlated to their own level of risk avoidance: Drivers who risk their cars by brushing the walls at every opportunity will be rewarded with high points from the judges, but exceeding the limits will end your weekend very quickly.
While 34 drivers were initially registered for the first round, only 31 made it to the track for race weekend, as some last minute complications left three drivers looking to Orlando for their season debut. Defending champion James Deane laid down the mark to beat after the first qualifying run with a score of 96, but his Worthouse Drift teammate Piotr Wiecek would tie his mark on the second run and earn the top qualifier position by virtue of a tiebreaker.
Forrest Wang marked his return to the series after a one-year hiatus by qualifying third with a score of 93. Justin Pawlak scored a 93 as well, but fell to fourth due to a lower tiebreaking mark.
All four Pro 2 graduates (Dirk Stratton—Q14, Austin Meeks—Q25, Kevin Lawrence—Q27, Matt VanKirk—Q29) qualified in their inaugural event in the Pro class, which is definitely noteworthy.
For the Nitto Tire team, Chelsea Denofa (Q11), Vaughn Gittin Jr. (Q19), Alex Heilbrunn (Q21) and Federico Sceriffo (Q22) all earned scores that would slot them into the tandem ladder for Saturday, but all were looking to improve their results by winning a few tandem battles.
Unfortunately, Dean Kearney would have mechanical issues during practice and was unable to make a qualifying pass, which meant the tandem ladder would have 30 drivers slotted into it. With Wiecek and Deane earning the top two qualifying positions, they had a bye into the Top 16 round.
While Friday’s qualifying session has championship implications due to the points available to higher qualifying drivers, glory is earned during Saturday’s battles. As is often the case with the first event of the season, the veterans who had several years of experience on the course saw success early in the day.
In the first round of tandem eliminations, all six rookie drivers lost to the more-experienced counterparts. Additionally, the higher qualifying driver won every tandem battle except for one, where Vaughn Gittin Jr. defeated higher-qualified Dirk Stratton, due to Stratton crashing while leading the tandem battle.
In one of the scariest tandem battles of the Top 32 round, Nitto Tire driver Federico Sceriffo collided with teammate Chelsea Denofa on their first run. It may have looked dramatic when Denofa was pushed into the tire barrier, but most of the damage to his car was cosmetic. Due to Sceriffo causing the collision, he was not allowed to look over his car between runs without taking his competition timeout, which he declined to do.
Denofa appeared back at the starting line missing both fenders, his front bumper, and the hood of his Mustang, but looked ready to battle. As both drivers left the starting line, it appeared to be just another tandem battle, right until Sceriffo’s Ferrari failed to initiate and slid off course into the runoff area past the first turn. His car burst into flames, and while Sceriffo was able to evacuate safely, it took several moments for fire safety team to arrive and extinguish the blaze.
In assessing the aftermath, the prevailing theory is that a suspension component on Sceriffo’s car cracked in the initial collision, and the stresses of attempting to initiate drift on the second run caused the part to fail, which punctured a fluid line that caused the fire. Thankfully, the damage appears to be mostly cosmetic, and Sceriffo is expecting to have the car fully repaired by Orlando.
In the Top 16, the trend of higher qualifying drivers earning the tandem victory continued, as Wiecek (Q1), Tuerck (Q8), Pawlak (Q4), Aasbo (Q5), Deane (Q2), Wang (Q3), and Forsberg (Q6) all earned victories. The lone upset came when Alec Hohnadell, as the 10th qualified driver, took out Matt Field (Q7) due to a small mistake in chase from Field.
For both Nitto Tire teammates Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Chelsea Denofa, their days ended in the Top 16 when they spun on their lead runs, happening in the big sweeper in front of the judges stand for Gittin Jr. and near the hairpin for Denofa. It was an unfortunate early exit for both drivers, who have both won at the Long Beach track before, but would watch this year’s Top 8 from the sidelines.
The Top 8 featured several great battles, but again, the higher qualified drivers held the advantage, as Wiecek defeated Tuerck, Deane defeated Hohnadell and Wang defeated Forsberg, putting the top three qualifiers into the Final 4. Fredric Aasbo was able to end Justin Pawlak’s day and prevent the fourth place qualifier from making a clean sweep, although it took a “One More Time” round before Aasbo earned the win.
One of the oddest battles in the Top 8 round happened in the tandem battle between Deane and Hohnadell. Deane laid down an awesome lead run in his Worthouse Drift Nissan S15, with Honadell pretty close behind him in his Permatex Nissan S14. When the drivers switched positions, Hohnadell tapped the wall after initiation and drove straight between Turn 9 and Turn 10, which lead to him earning an "incomplete run" from the judges.
In an unrelated issue, James Deane experienced some sort of suspension failure, causing him to lose drift behind Hohnadell, and he was unable to complete the run as well. With both drivers being scored as "incomplete" on the second run, the first run was judged independently, and Deane was given the win, despite being towed off course by a tow truck when the announcement was made.
The Final 4
The Final 4 was setting up to be an epic battle between four drivers who had laid down some of the best runs of the day, but the tandem battles ended up being decided before the judges had the chance to evaluate the runs.
In the first battle between Europeans, Wiecek got too aggressive closing the gap to Aasbo before the peninsula clip and washed out, allowing Aasbo to earn the votes from all three judges. Wiecek likely had the advantage after the first run, and was laying down one of the best chase runs of the day prior to the washout. However, the mistake had to be punished, so Aasbo progressed to the final.
The battle of Nissan S15s that was scheduled to happen between Wang and Deane didn’t come to fruition, as the damage to Deane’s S15 from his battle with Hohnadell was too much to repair within the time allotted, and Deane was forced to retire. Wang made a solo pass into the final and guaranteed himself a career-best finish, as his best finish had been third up to that point.
Luckily, the final battle made up for the lack of suspense in the Final 4. Aasbo and Wang's battle was one for the ages. Oddly enough, a huge bank of fog rolled into the Long Beach venue in between the conclusion of Wang’s solo run and the battle between Wang and Aasbo, which drastically dropped temperatures at the track.
Both drivers handled the change well and laid down a pair of amazing runs, prompting the crowd to chant for a “One More Time” battle. The judges agreed and sent the drivers back to the starting line for a second pair of runs.
Again, the drivers answered the call from the judges and seemed to push their cars deeper into the clipping zones, with both runs looking nearly identical to the naked eye. While many fans felt that the drivers should be sent for a second “One More Time” round, the judges had seen enough to make a decision.
Aasbo was announced as the winner, his 11th career victory. Wang humbly accepted second place, a career-best finish for him in his return to the series after a year hiatus. Due to qualifying position, Wiecek took the final position on the podium, with Deane accepting fourth place.
Next up, the series migrates to Orlando, Florida for Round 2 of the championship, although several drivers will make an appearance at the annual Motegi Super Drift invitational in conjunction with the Long Beach Grand Prix. We will have full coverage of the entire Formula Drift season here on DrivingLine, so stay tuned!