Piotr Wiecek Wins Under the Lights at Formula Drift Texas 2018
For its seventh round in 2018, Formula Drift’s Black Magic Pro Championship made its way to the Lone Star state to tackle the biggest track around: Texas Motor Speedway. Situated just west of Dallas in Fort Worth, Texas, the venue that normally holds over 180,000 fans for oval racing has hosted Formula Drift on the inner road course for many years. The “Showdown” has yet to disappoint and would be a crucial round for each of the title hopefuls in this year’s run for top honors. James Deane, the 2017 champion from Ireland, entered Texas with only a 30 point lead over Fredric Aasbo. One way or another, Texas would prove a turning point for both of their fortunes.
Texas Motor Speedway Track Layout
The sport of drifting runs on a few key elements: speed, angle and line. Some would say that flow encompasses all three, and Texas Motor Speedway’s design is all about maximizing how the car can get into a solid groove for a full lap. It begins with a quick downhill blast to the initiation point and a long right hand sweeper that narrows to the first inside clipping point at corner exit (turn one). Drivers let the car float wide to an outside zone, then power up the hill for a high speed transition to the left. The track tightens again, demanding the drivers be precise for a second inside clipping point as they dive down in front of the grandstands. A flick to the right and the car can swing wide again, this time for a brush with disaster right against a tire barrier on the outside of the track. Get it right, and the car will be positioned perfectly to power past the third and final inside clipping point just before the finish line.
Two points on the track have traditionally separated the men from the boys: first turn to up the hill and the sweeper along the tire wall. Many competitors will choose a shallower line to maintain close position, but the judges reward the brave for their efforts to push the boundaries throughout the whole course.
Qualifying in the Rain
As the competitors lined up for qualifying, rain loomed over the proceedings. The weekend’s forecast was more a question of when, not if, the weather would hit the track, adding an extra layer of uncertainty on top of the usual pressure to qualify. Unfortunately, mechanical issues that occurred in the morning practice took Dean Kearney out of contention, meaning only 30 would ultimately qualify for the Top 32 bracket.
Alec Hohnadell was the first to set a real benchmark score with a 96 on his opening lap. Quite a few others were able to surpass the 90 mark, including Gittin Jr., DeNofa, Wang, Tuerck and Aasbo, but it wasn’t until James Deane’s first run that someone was able to best Hohnadell. Deane attacked hard, pulling intense angle past the second inside clip, and was awarded with a 97 to cap off the first half of qualifying. Formula Drift’s rules give each driver two chances to produce their best score, meaning there was still time for even that high score to be bested.
About a dozen cars into the second laps, the rain finally arrived, quickly wetting the track and removing tire smoke from the runs. History has not been kind to wet qualifying runs, and at first it seemed like a slam dunk for Deane to maintain his lead. However, Formula D gave each driver an extra sighting lap to learn the damp course ahead of their scored lap. This, combined with some extraordinary talent, saw solid runs throughout the order. Drivers were improving on their first lap scores, and again 90+ points were being thrown down heading into the Top Ten. Rain picked up, and lightning was detected in the area, causing a brief hold on the action to ensure the safety of the spectators and teams.
Through a light drizzle, the last remaining cars went out, with Piotr Wiecek laying down an aggressive 95. Impressive as that was, it wasn’t enough to push Deane, who, just for good measure, managed to lay down a 98 on his own wet lap, showing he was the ace in both the dry and the wet. Both he and Hohnadell, who hung onto second place in qualifying, received bye runs for the main competition, immediately putting them into the Top 16. Aasbo landed fourth behind Wiecek, and DeNofa took eleventh just ahead of Gittin Jr. in twelfth. The bracket was set and skies were clear, ready for the tandem battles.
Tandem Competition Into Darkness
Texas marks the second of three rounds to finish under the lights, together with Atlanta (round three) and Irwindale (round eight). Top 32 competition began in the afternoon, and the Top 16 ran through the sunset, testing the drivers’ abilities to race through both smoke and darkness.
On the left side of the bracket, things proceeded in line with qualifying and overall points positions. Notably, Daijiro Yoshihara was able to take out Kristaps Bluss in the Top 32. Bluss was driving a borrowed Nissan 370Z from George Kiriakopoulos after his BMW “Eurofighter” M3 blew a motor in practice.
Ultimately, Deane, the top qualifier, knocked out Ken Gushi and Yoshihara to make it into the Final Four. Championship rival Aasbo was waiting for him there, having already fought past Kyle Mohan, Chris Forsberg and a One More Time (OMT) win over Ryan Tuerck.
On the right half of the bracket, however, results were more difficult to predict. Rookie Ryan Litteral managed to get past second place qualifier Alec Hohnadell in the Top 16, taking him to the highest round in his short career. Federico Sceriffo, in his bright yellow Ferrari 599, put up a good fight, but was no match for Justin Pawlak’s teal and blue Mustang. Pawlak was taken out by another Nitto driver, DeNofa, setting the stage for a good showdown with Litteral in the quarterfinals. Litteral was totally blinded by DeNofa’s smoke trail in the chase position, far off his marks as DeNofa earned the win.
Third place qualifier Wiecek breezed past Kevin Lawrence before contending with Matt Field in the Top 16. Their first runs were too close to call, and the judges requested an OMT to give each another shot at dominance. Wiecek found some extra speed and was able to build a gap over Field during the lead run to take the win.
Gittin Jr., the remaining RTR/Nitto Tire Ford Mustang driver, managed to get past the likes of rookie Matt Vankirk and recently returned veteran Forrest Wang in the Top 16.
Wiecek met Gittin Jr. in the Nos Energy Drink Great Eight, a fierce battle between two top competitors. Gittin Jr. stayed close during the first chase run and took a competition timeout to fix a power steering issue in between laps. He returned to try and nail the win, but Wiecek’s pressure was too strong. The Worthouse S15 was flawless, while Gittin Jr.’s Mustang went wide on the final turn, taking out a sponsor billboard before coming to a halt. Wiecek moved on to face DeNofa in the Final Four.
Cell phone flashlights illuminated the path of Deane and Aasbo for the first battle of the Link ECU Final Four. This was a high stakes match for the championship, Aasbo desperate to continue taking points away from Deane ahead of Irwindale. Both drivers put on solid lead runs with nothing to show between, leaving it up to the chase to decide the match. Aasbo may be one of the tightest chasers in the business, but on this occasion, Deane was better, holding closer proximity throughout the whole course with full commitment. Although it was perhaps the best match of the entire weekend, the judges were clear and didn’t need an OMT to decide it. Deane advanced to the finals.
The other Final Four battle between Wiecek and DeNofa was eerily similar. It was as if Wiecek had been taking notes from Deane’s playbook, and managed an equally impressive chase run against DeNofa to lock in his own win. The dim lighting and skill needed to follow that tightly cannot be overstated here. What these drivers did in low visibility was almost superhuman, knowing the exact moment to transition and avoid a collision with the lead driver through the smoke.
The last match of the night was the one the entire crowd had been waiting to see. Not only are Deane and Wiecek excellent drivers, but they’ve shown that they are willing to push each other hard. Their Worthouse Nissan S15s are nearly identical builds, meaning that whenever they battle, we always see whose skill was most on point that day. Indeed, as Deane led the first set of runs, the pair delivered. Wiecek was tight in the twin drift mirroring and knocking right on Deane’s door through the sweeping first turn. Switching places for Wiecek’s lead, Deane ran into the attrition that a long, hot event like Texas can so easily bring on. A mechanical problem midway through turn one brought his race to a swift end, allowing Wiecek to slip away with a clean run and claim victory.
As incredible a win that it was, it may not be enough this late in the season for Wiecek. He sits third in the overall standings, a full 87 points behind teammate Deane. With only one round to go, mathematically Wiecek is still alive, but a long shot. Aasbo, who took the final step on the Texas podium through his qualifying position, sits in second place in the Pro championship,49 points back. Deane will likely need to reach the Great Eight in the final event to clinch the championship, while Aasbo will need to a victory to win it all.
Just off the podium, DeNofa had another strong finish by taking fourth place in Texas, bumping him up in the rankings from 13th to 11th. Nitto teammate Gittin Jr. also gained a spot, moving into 14th, along with Sceriffo up to 27th as Dean Kearney was unable to compete. Alex Heilbrunn’s BMW was once again hampered with mechanical issues, preventing him from even attending the Texas round.
The Formula Drift Black Magic Pro Championship will conclude in Irwindale, California for the final round of the season on October 13. The finale will be the deciding venue for both the Pro and Pro2 championships, a first in series history, with everything still to race for. Keep it tuned to Driving Line for the full story of how it all goes down!