Sitting around in the north east of England in February, a person’s mind turns to how to break the winter blues, and that normally means starting to look at the calendar and planning a trip abroad. Looking over the FD schedule I initially started with the standard dates I look at, New Jersey and Irwindale but the one that jumped out was round 1 at Long Beach. It’s a track I’ve never shot and meant I could look at attending the Grand Prix of Long Beach the following weekend. A couple of days of checking flights and hotels and I was telling my day boss that I was taking pretty much the whole of April off…I already had the Easter weekend all booked for Drift Games round 1 in Ireland.
Driving into the Event Centre for the very first time is kinda crazy as the car park is situated just before the start line, the roads closed off once the racing starts, and for a few seconds I thought I was going to end up driving around the course!
Once the media briefing was out the way we were given a track walk and a chance to see the holes which they helpfully cut in the fencing, a requirement as this is an Indy track. I’d already been warned that shooting spots are limited and it did look like it would be challenging working around the other togs.
One of the late bits of news for this year was that Aussie Mitch Larner would be competing after he obtained his FD license taking the runner up spot in IDC last year. Mitch would be teaming up with Forrest Wang and driving the GetNuts Laboratory s14. After being one of the most exciting drivers to watch in IDC last year this was a nice bonus and I was looking forward to seeing how he competed against the big names in FD.
The other talking point for this round, and season, was could James Deane keep up his domination of every event he enters? After he shook FD by its collar two years ago, he then made everyone start stepping up their games when he went on and won the 2018 championship as well. Now I’m not saying it’s all down to James but the builds and power figures this year are crazy. There is more Nos around the pits than in the entire F&F box set and 1000bhp is now being thrown around as normal.
Long Beach gives a unique shooting opportunity with the condos and palm trees providing amazing backdrops even shooting through the holes in the fence.
The first corner, actually corner 9 on the full Long Beach circuit, takes no prisoners if you get it wrong as Kevin Lawrence proved on his first practice run…not the way he would have wanted to start the season.
After his Ferrari bursting into flames was one of the most talked about incidents last year Federico Sceriffo was back and hoping to give people something else to talk about.
The yellow Ferrari 599 stands out both on and off the track and with an added shot of Nos Sceriffo wants to be a contender this season.
Before Formula Drift took on a very green feel in 2017, when James Deane rolled back into town and proved on the worlds largest drifting stage why he’s called the machine, two drivers were dominating. Chris Forsberg had taken two of the three previous championships and is rated the most successful driver in FD history with 3 championships in total and more rounds on the top step of the podium than any other driver, he is FD’s Mr Consistancy. This year he’s swapped the VQ for a VR from the r35 and thrown in some Nitros for good measure. I got a look around the car at SEMA and it’s a thing of beauty.
With 1 championship win and more podium places than any other FD driver Frederic Aasbo has been the driver snapping at Deane heels the last two years, taking second spot both years and keeping the title race open into the final round. Could either of these drivers stop James becoming the first driver to take 3 championships in a row?
This year FD have brought back the scoring zones system from 2017. For Long Beach this splits the track into 5 sectors each with a distinctive zone/clip and marked with a max of 6 points each for line and angle per sector and then 20 points max each for fluidity and commitment across the whole course, giving the maximum of 100 points for a perfect run.
By the end of the first qualifying runs Deane sat in the lead with a 98 dropping 1 point for angle and 1 for style. The judges don’t go over the scoring in qualifying and I have no idea where those points were dropped as it looked a perfect run, but I’ll freely admit I never envy a judges job in pro drifting. A talking point last year was how high the scoring was during qualifying. I’m not sure if that was one of the reasons for reintroducing sectors but the scoring still seemed to be high. By the end of the first runs 12 drivers were in the 90s with Forsbergs 86 having him down in 15th. There is no denying the skill of the drivers but I feel the scoring needs to be tweaked somehow to give the judges more room to play with as the day progresses.
It took a wonderfully smooth and fluid run from Matt Field to knock Deane into second place with 99 points.
The rest of the top 5 finished with Wiecek in 3rd, Yoshihara 4th and Bakchis 5th all with 97 points.
Forrest Wang took 6th with newcomer and GetNuts teammate Mitch Larner qualifying 21st.
As is normal the first day finished off with an autograph session giving the fans a chance to briefly meet the drivers and get posters and teeshirts signed.
Another early start driving down to Long Beach from Glendale. Unlike other events, at FD you only need to attend a single briefing but this give me a chance to wander the pits and check out the car show before the gates opened to the public.
Saturdays at FD are split into 3 sections. At Long Beach, this is practice in the early morning, top 32 over lunchtime and top 16 finishing off the day. Between top 32 and top 16 there is a two-hour break from the action. When you’re sitting at home in a time zone 8 hours ahead this can be a killer if you’re feeling even slightly tired but at the track, it’s a great time to grab some food, rest your feet and generally chill. This downtime also includes the track walk for VIPs, top 16 line up and the national anthem. If you scanned down the top 32 battles prior to the event and picked who should win each run then you wouldn’t have any surprises once the smoke started.
Mitch Larner started with a good aggressive run against Essa but ran straight around the hairpin taking out the cone. For his first time competing in FD, in a borrowed car, Mitch can hold his head up getting to the top 32 and then going out against an ex-champ.
Forrest Wang put in an amazing lead run against Taylor Hull putting the rear of his car right on the wall in both the first clip and outer zones. With an amazing chase run, everyone knew which way the judges would go. There are a handful of drivers I root for in FD for various reasons and Mitch and Forrest both fall into that group. Mitch put on an amazing show in every round of the Irish Drift Championship last year and was one of the few drivers that came close to beat Duane McKeever. Forrest has been over to Ireland for a handful of rounds now, getting a spot on the podium when he took 3rd spot in his debut round back in 2016, something some of the biggest names in Formula Drift have tried and failed at. He’s also one of the nice guys of drifting, always friendly and pleasant to speak to and that runs through his team as well. The team also have the coolest pit shirts….(hint!!!)
Two more drivers I’ll always be cheering on are the two Irish drivers Deane and Kearney. In James chase run against Kyle Mohan he hit the lead car going around the hairpin but the judges ruled Mohan has slowed too much putting James into the top 16. Jhonnathan Castro lost it chasing Kearney into the hairpin leaving the Irishman to take the win and a battle against his fellow countryman James Deane.
With the half time break and the national anthem out the way, it was time for the top 16 battles.
Forsberg and DeNofa both looked to put in great runs but the judges give Chris the win saying DeNofa put 2 wheels off, much to the vocal disappointment of the crowd.
In the battle of the Irish things didn’t go to plan with both drivers making mistakes with contact in both runs and Kearney having to call a 5min rule between runs due to a loose bumper and overheating problems. In the end the judges called it a OMT.
While we waited for the OMT Deanes teammate Wiecek took out Travis Reeder, and Forrest Wang progressed to the great 8 with a fantastic win against Gitten Jr. Wang drove an amazing lead run throwing his rear end into the touch and go out of the first corner in sector 1 and then throwing it around to kiss the outer zone in sector 2. VGJ first of all struggled to match Wangs line and then to keep up with him.
With James Deane back on the start line things didn’t look idea for Kearney. In the first run his engine had hit 260 degrees hence the 5 mins rule. Topping up the coolant and spraying Nos on the ‘hot bits’ they managed to get it down to 215 but then in the second run it spiked at 280 degrees and they suspected it had blown one or possibly two head gaskets. Kearney was finally towed up to the start line. The drivers got around the first corner in sector one but then as they approached the Firestone bridge Kearney spun out. As he was still rotating James Deane aborted his run but it didn’t appear to be related to the spin. This time it was Deane calling the 5 min time out.
While we waited for James to sort his car they ran the first great 8 battle with Chris Forsberg progressing against Matt Field after Field lost it in sector 3 in front of the tyre wall, doing well to save the car going into the tyres.
In the second run of the Deane v Kearney OMT the judges decided James did enough to progress to the great 8. As well as the front bumper and engine, Kearney was also going to have some work to do on the rear end after a hard contact with the wall as he went through the sector 1 touch and go.
So back to the great 8 battles. Pawlak and Backchis put in great runs with no mistakes and the judges couldn’t separate them so called a OMT. In the second battle of the one more time JTP made a little to much contact with the wall in sector 1 and couldn’t keep the required line giving Odi the win.
Forrest continued his weekend taking out one of 2019’s favorites Piotr Wiecek with near perfect lead and chase runs.
In the final great 8 battle Aasbo put his yellow Corolla on James Deane’s door in a great first run, with Deane making a small mistake going around the hairpin. Then in Deane’s chase run he had issues going through sector 1 making it an easy decision for the judges. Deane’s car had been having issues including the Nitros not working, leading to some very uncharacteristic mistakes but that shouldn’t take away two great runs from Aasbo.
The top 4 was set with Wang against Aasbo and Forsberg against Bakchis. After one run against Forrest Wang, Aasbo had to retire as they found a piece of a spark plug in the turbo housing. I’m gonna assume the cheers after the announcement were for Forrest going through rather than a reaction at Assbo having to retire.
Perfect runs by Odi and a couple of small mistakes from Forsberg put Odi into the final against Forrest and give Forsberg third spot.
Before the weekend I doubt many would have guessed at this final but both drivers have been outstanding all weekend during practice, qualifying and the battles. Forrest’s team sent most of the day working on the car with Forrest missing most of the morning practice and then fixing an arm to get the car out for the top 16. Now here he is in the final and whoever wins, the leaderboard is starting off very different to last year and for the general FD fans that can only be a good thing.
With awesome lead runs from both drivers, and a faultless chase run from Odi, the final was decided on the first run where Forrest was a little wild and loose in his chase.
With the smoke cleared, the drivers were lined up in front of the grandstand and the judges confirmed the 2019 round 1 winner was Odi Bakchis which just left the podiums and champagne.
Considering the number of podiums Chris Forsberg has had I’m not sure why he had such an issue popping the cork but it amused Forrest.
This was my fourth FD round, the second one I’ve covered for ED, and it was an amazing weekend. It would be hard to find a better location with palm trees, condos, grandstands and the ocean surrounding the track and I’m glad I was there to experience it at the start of what looks to be an unpredictable season.