Kristaps Bluss Conquers the Road to the Championship at Formula Drift Atlanta
The third stop on Formula Drift’s eight-event 2018 tour landed teams at the same track that birthed the series 15 years ago: the famed Road Atlanta racetrack in Braselton, Georgia. Thirty drivers battled it out in front of 20,000 fans, with Latvian driver Kristaps Bluss earning the event win. All in all, the tandem runs in Atlanta were some of the best we’ve witnessed all season, and the crowd provided nearly as much entertainment and enthusiasm as the drivers on track. While we were disappointed in the lack of excitement for the tandem battles in Orlando, this round more than made up for it!
Road Atlanta Course Layout
Formula Drift’s event weekend activities centered around the Turn 10 complex, which had a horseshoe section of asphalt paved specifically for Formula Drift back in 2004. The terraced amphitheater complex is known as being one of the rowdiest on the FD schedule, and fans will flock to the venue at 9 a.m. on Friday to claim the best spots to tailgate all weekend despite the drifting starting at 4 p.m. and continuing well into the evening.
Drivers grid up on the back straightaway between turns 9 and 10, and launch down the hill towards the 90-degree left hand turn at speeds that near 90 mph. After initiating into the first 90-degree turn and staying close to the inside clipping point, drivers transition in the opposite direction and head up the hill between turn 10b and the crest of the hill that heads back towards the traditional start/finish line. Just before entering the horseshoe, drivers must place the back end of their car along the outside clipping zone on the far side of the main racing line along the raised curbing, then slide into the horseshoe section on the outside to line the second outside clipping zone.
The next portion of the course slides directly in front of the judges’ stand as they start to slide back down the hill towards the start line, and drivers are asked to get close to an inside clipping point in the middle of the horseshoe before transitioning back to the traditional racing course and nearing another inside clipping point at the bottom of the hill that was added this season in favor of slowing drivers down and keeping them on a tighter line heading back towards the grid area. One final transition sends drivers back across turn 10a before completing the drift back up the hill, running the initial portion of the track in reverse to the traditional racing circuit.
For the third consecutive event this season, fewer than 32 drivers ended up qualifying for Saturday’s tandem action despite there being enough drivers in attendance. Unfortunately, Nitto Tire drivers Alex Heilbrunn and Federico Sceriffo both failed to qualify when freak mechanical issues ended their days on Friday. For Heilbrunn, a mechanical failure late in practice kept him from lining up for tandem battles for the first time since he made his Formula Drift Pro 2 debut back in 2015. Sceriffo’s DNQ came at the hands of a broken axle, and while the team thrashed to get the car repaired in time for his second qualifying run, they were a few minutes short of completing the repairs.
Sceriffo has had a rough season after the major fire that ended his Long Beach event, but you’d never know it based on his attitude in the pits as he stayed extra-long on Friday signing autographs for fans who were anxious to see “Fiorella,” his Ferrari 599 GTB drift car (which we featured during the Long Beach debut). Ryan Litteral and Taylor Hull also failed to earn a qualifying score in their cars, much to the dismay of their fans, as both Litteral’s KoruWorks team and Hull consider Road Atlanta to be their home track.
Justin Pawlak impressed the judges most with his second qualifying run, earning the top position with a score of 97 points in his Roush Ford Mustang, his first top qualifier effort since Atlanta in 2015, 22 events previous. Dai Yoshihara was hot on his tail with a score of 96 in his Turn 14 Subaru BR-Z, while Fredric Aasbo (95 Points) and James Deane (95 Points) earned bye runs in the Top 32 round. Nitto Tire teammates Chelsea Denofa and Vaughn Gittin Jr. both put their Ford Mustangs into the tandem bracket with qualifying efforts of Q6 and Q13 respectively, thankfully avoiding a first-round faceoff like they saw in Long Beach this season.
The only word that comes to mind when describing the overall tandem battles from the weekend is “epic.” While Orlando left us scratching our heads to think of a memorable tandem battle, there was at least one standout battle in each round of competition. Many of the favorites won their first round matchups in the Top 32 round, but several faced adversity in getting there. Forrest Wang needed a “One More Time” round between his Vapetasia S15 and Jeff Jones’ Doc X sponsored Nissan 370Z, while Vaughn Gittin Jr. lost a split decision against Ryan Tuerck in his first round matchup. Many fans felt that Gittin Jr. was robbed of a Top 16 appearance, but in a judged motorsport, you’ll never appease everyone.
After receiving the Black Magic Top Qualifier award during the Top 16 opening ceremonies, top qualifier Justin Pawlak was eliminated in the first battle of the round when Ken Gushi used an aggressive chase and a more refined line around the course to put the pressure on Pawlak. Both drivers made some small mistakes, but Pawlak’s mistakes were deemed to be worse in the eyes of the judges. Another surprising result in the Ford Top 16 happened when eventual-champ Bluss nearly eliminated himself due to losing drift shortly after initiation and venturing off into the gravel at the end of Turn 10a, but thankfully, Wang also earned an incomplete run on his chase and the judges demanded to see a “One More Time” run.
Impressively, neither driver made a single mistake in the “One More Time” battle, and the judges requested a second “One More Time” battle between the two fan favorites. In the second overtime battle, Bluss left no doubt as his chase run was the best we had seen in the evening, earning him the win. Worthouse Drift teammates James Deane and Piotr Wiecek also earned wins in their battles, while Yoshihara, Forsberg, Aasbo and Denofa joined them in the NOS Energy Drink Great 8.
The NOS Energy Drink Great 8 brought us four great tandem battles, and any driver in the Great 8 could have easily won both their tandem battle as well as the event. The highlight of the Great 8 was clearly the Aasbo vs. Denofa battle, where both drivers had some moments of brilliance in one of the smokiest matchups of the evening. In the end, the judges felt that Aasbo’s superior proximity and line around the track earned him the win, but the crowd began loudly booing the decision as soon as it was announced. Later in the round, chants for Denofa continued from the fans, particularly from the “Team Rowdy” section, but despite their best efforts, Denofa had to watch the Final 4 from the sidelines. In addition to Aasbo, Wiecek, Bluss and Forsberg all advanced to the podium-deciding round, which only served to further the points gap between the top several drivers and the rest of the field.
As the top qualified driver in the Final 4, Aasbo was guaranteed a spot on the podium, but would fight to make it his first win in Atlanta as he has won at nearly every other track on the current circuit. On the left side of the bracket, Bluss defeated Wiecek for only his second final round appearance of his Formula Drift career, while Aasbo defeated Forsberg on the right side of the bracket to create an all-Euro final between Bluss and Aasbo. By virtue of qualifying, Forsberg earned the final podium spot over Wiecek, although both drivers earned identical point totals of 64 points for their tandem battle efforts. The final was another great battle between Bluss and Aasbo, which was pushed to a “One More Time” round, but Bluss’s speed would go unmatched by Aasbo on the way to earning his first career victory.
Bluss now moves into the battle for the championship in 5th position after three rounds, 86 points behind the leader Fredric Aasbo. Chris Forsberg (37 points behind), James Deane (52 points behind) and Piotr Wiecek (69 points behind) all appear to be well positioned to make a run for the championship, but we still have five more events and more than 500 champions points still left on the table.
Formula Drift takes a three week break before venturing to the famed Wall Speedway venue for the next stop on the tour over the weekend of June 1 and 2. We’ll be there to capture all of the action from the banked speedway! To see all the action from Atlanta, check out the gallery below.