Kicking off its landmark 20th Anniversary season, the opening round was an opportunity to see a number of the new initiatives introduced by Formula DRIFT to give fans and teams an even more powerful connection to the series. Among these is a significantly increased prize purse, giving drivers a greater incentive to go for gold. There is also a new roster of official tire suppliers for the PRO teams, including GT Radial, Kenda Tire, Nexen Tire, Nitto Tire and Vitour Tire.
To speed up the qualifying and competition heats, Formula DRIFT has introduced a number of changes to the judging system. During qualifying, the final score is an average of the points awarded by each of the three judges, who can now consider an “X factor” score to recognize the drivers who put it all on the line. Each judge assesses the entire run rather than focusing on either line, angle or style. The judges also have access to additional information, including new light systems in every car that indicate acceleration or deceleration, as well as access to in-car telemetry to really understand what the driver was doing.
The Formula DRIFT teams obviously play a huge part in making 2023 an unforgettable experience and perhaps the biggest talking point was the return of three-time FD PRO Champion James Deane (Ireland), who joined the RTR Motorsports team. The team also includes the hard-charging Chelsea DeNofa and two-time FD PRO Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr, who returned to the series and will share an RTR Mustang with YouTube star Adam LZ.
It remains to be seen whether RTR will be an unbeatable combination, but certainly, their qualifying form suggested they mean business.
Other 2023 highlights include the official Formula DRIFT podcast Outerzone, which will connect fans to the sport at a deeper level. And there’s the new FD Hall of Fame, which will include a permanent monument erected in the city of Long Beach; and the first inductees were announced by FD co-founder Jim Liaw during the weekend, recognizing the significant contribution of legendary drivers Rhys Millen and Samuel Hubinette.
The K&N Qualifying session took place in warm, sunny conditions and saw a minor change to the profile of Outside Zone 2 (OZ2) on the Streets of Long Beach course. The turn had been tightened slightly to help the drivers flow through the course better.
For 2023, qualifying returned to a reverse order format, with the newest drivers running first and the 2022 PRO Champion saved until last. This meant the returning three-time FD PRO Champion James Deane (Ireland) was among the first runners after his three-year sabbatical.
Like all the drivers, Deane’s single qualifying run would be assessed by the new scoring procedure that allowed all three judges to award up to 90 points for the entire run, with an additional 10 points awarded for the “X factor.” The final points score would be an average of all three judges’ scores.
The judges for FD LB included Ryan Lanteigne (Canada), Chris Uhl (USA) and Robbie Nishida (Japan). The fourth judge, Brian Eggert (USA), was a Driver’s Steward for the weekend and will appear at future rounds as the roster rotates.
Deane’s qualifying run in his AutoZone Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD scored 92.66 points out of a possible 100. It put him in the top spot for most of the K&N qualifying session, only to be bettered by Ryan Tuerck (USA) at the tail end. Repeating his performance from 2022, Tuerck executed an astonishing run that saw him tap the rear bumper of the Rain-X / Nitto Tire / Rockstar Energy Toyota GR Corolla against each Outside Zone. Tuerck received 98.33 points for his efforts, including a perfect X-factor score. And thanks to the Knockout Qualifying Format (KQF), which requires the bottom eight qualifiers to run a second time, Tuerck and Deane received bye runs through the Top 32 heats after two drivers failed to qualify.
Drivers relegated to KQF included Mike Power (USA), Nick Noback (USA), Robert Thorne (USA), Matt Field (USA), Jonathan Hurst (USA), Adam LZ (USA), Kyle Mohan (USA) and Joao Barion (Brazil). These drivers had the lowest scores or an incomplete qualifying run. KQF gives them all a second chance to fill the bottom eight places. Fortunately, 32 drivers were attempting to qualify for the 32 competition spots, so nobody would be eliminated unless they failed to complete the run.
As it happened, Mohan and Barion failed to complete their second runs, handing Tuerck and Deane their bye runs.
Chelsea DeNofa (USA) placed third in the Pennzoil / BC Racing Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD, meaning two RTR drivers occupied the top three positions. The third member, Adam LZ (USA), qualified 30th and last.
The top qualifiers receive championship points, with three going to the top spot, two for second and one for third. This can make a significant difference during the course of the season, with a maximum of 24 points available. And when you consider Fredric Aasbo (Norway) claimed the 2022 title by a narrow 37 points, it’s certainly worth fighting for.
Reigning and three-time Champion Aasbo qualified seventh in the Rockstar Energy Toyota GR Supra with 85.66 points, making his path to the Final more challenging. But not as difficult as Matt Field – who finished second in 2022 and led the FD PRO Championship for the majority of the season. He spun on his first run and participated in KQF, qualifying 27th with 78.66 points. This meant Field’s first competition heat in the Borla Performance / GT Radial Corvette would be against three-time FD PRO Champion Chris Forsberg (USA) driving the NOS Energy Drink / GT Radial Nissan Z, which would be an intense start to their day for both of them.
Forrest Wang (USA), another returnee to the FD PRO Championship after a four-year absence, qualified his Yellowspeed / NRG Nissan S15 in a strong fifth position with a score of 88.33 points. While the 2022 Formula DRIFT PROSPEC Champion, Robert Thorne, competing in his first PRO event, qualified 28th with 74 points and was happy to survive KQF in his ASM E46 Sedan PRO Edition.
Having qualified in such a lowly position and needing to overcome a number of major obstacles, Matt Field’s win at the opening round of the 2023 Formula DRIFT PRO Championship proved he’d lost none of the determination that drove him to the top last year, only to lose by a handful of points.
As mentioned, the first contest for Field’s Borla Performance / GT Radial Corvette was Forsberg’s Nissan Z, and after their first runs the judges were unable to separate their performances. When this happens, the judges can request the drivers run One More Time (OMT), repeating both runs to see who blinks first. With both drivers performing well in the lead and chase positions, it was Forsberg’s impact with the wall at OZ1 that separated them. The subsequent correction by Forsberg saw points deducted and Field advance.
In the Top 16, Dean Kearney (Ireland) represents a clear and present danger in the HyperNFT Dodge Viper. However, a number of mistakes during his chase run allowed Field to progress into the Top 8, where the Pennzoil / BC Racing Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD of Chelsea DeNofa awaited him. There is no easy way to beat DeNofa, but an over-rotation in OZ2 saw him slide backwards into the tire wall. After checking the Mustang for damage, Field simply had to complete his lead run to get the judges’ decision.
The Top 4 would see a repeat of the 2022 Quarter Final between Field and Aasbo. One year ago, the Norwegian had transitioned fractionally early in OZ2, and the subsequent collision slung Field’s Vette into the wall, causing considerable damage. Unable to effect repairs in the allotted time, Field advanced to the Final, but Tuerck was awarded the win because the Corvette didn’t make the start line.
With all that history weighing on their shoulders, there was an audible gasp when Field spun shortly after initiating into OZ1, hitting the wall and grinding to a halt. In what appeared to be driver error, it was the new “decel” lights fitted to the cars that showed Aasbo had momentarily slowed to correct his Rockstar Energy Toyota GR Supra after rubbing against the wall. With the red light visible on the Formula DRIFT livestream instant replay, the judges assessed the Toyota driver to be at fault.
“It was on me. I’m sorry for sending him into the wall,” a contrite Aasbo said once the decision was made. “He (Field) moves on, but we had a great weekend, made some progress with the car, and I’m happy to be on the podium, but I have a love-hate relationship with this track.”
With fluids leaking from Field’s Corvette, it was towed to the Drift Cave pits, where the damage was assessed, and 15min were available under the rules to effect repairs.
“After last year’s crash, we built the car stronger. The crashable tube front end was designed to take the hit. We put a new one on, changed the intercooler, some parts, and it was good to go,” Field reported after the race.
With Aasbo ruled at fault, the Corvette simply had to complete a clean lead run to be awarded the victory, where he’d face Rome Charpentier (USA) in the Garagistic / Vitour Tire BMW E36.
An FD PRO rookie in 2020, Charpentier has made dramatic progress, placing second in New Jersey last year and putting his competitors on notice. And at FD Long Beach, he ploughed through the heats, beating Nick Noback (USA) in the Top 32, the extremely experience Ken Gushi (Japan) in the Top 16, and crushing the dreams of Forrest Wang (USA) in the Top 8.
In the Top 4, Charpentier was matched against Jonathan Hurst (USA) in the Cash Racing BMW E46. Hurst was a man on a mission, having beaten Odi Bakchis (Lithuania), Taylor Hull (USA) and Ryan Tuerck (USA) to reach the Quarter Final and was equally determined to win the round.
In a battle of the titans between two BMW driver on the new Vitour tires, Charpentier executed a faultless lead run. Having cut a few zones to maintain proximity in the chase position, the pressure was on Hurst for his lead run. With a horsepower advantage, Hurst initiated at high speed but thumped the wall in OZ1, throwing his trunk lid into the path of Charpentier. Swerving to avoid the debris, Charpentier struggled to regain his composure and spun his BMW at Inside Clip 1.
After reviewing the replays, the judges put blame for the spin on Hurst, allowing Charpentier to advance to the Final. Hurst placed fourth overall because he qualified 25th compared to Aasbo in 7th.
In the Final, there was some trepidation about whether Field’s car would hold together but he maintained great proximity in the chase position and went deep enough to touch the walls at OZ1 and 3 on his lead run. It was enough to give him a well-deserved win and return him to the top of the title standings, where he spent most of 2022.
“The gameplan for Long Beach was to just show up,” Field told us after the podium ceremony. “Media Day, test sessions, practice: just show up. Pushing hard at 100% is super-difficult but I spent the entire off-season building a new car and trying to build a team for instances where you have very little time to repair the car.”
“I’ve been waiting for this win for so long. Long Beach is my absolute favorite track and finally we showed up when it mattered and got the win. I had to rise to the occasion, forget about the mistakes and focus on reaching the podium. After the wreck, the boys absolutely killed it, which is why you need a great team. They got us on the top step of the podium,” Field declared.
“Going against Fredric, I knew anything could happen. When you’re that close, stuff happens so quickly but I’m glad the judges saw it from my point of view.”
For Charpentier, second place was an incredible achievement, especially since Vitour Tire had only joined the series a few weeks before the opening round, giving the teams very little time for testing. However, the success of Charpentier and Hurst put Vitour at the top of the 2023 Formula DRIFT Tire Cup, above its experienced rivals, while Field catapulted Chevrolet in the top spot of the 2023 FD Auto Cup.
The top Formula DRIFT PRO Rookie at Long Beach was Diego Higa (Brazil) who placed 22nd overall in his Toyota GT86.
Before slipping away for his traditional post-race pedicure, we caught up with Formula DRIFT President, Ryan Sage: “This was an incredible kick off to the 20th Anniversary in front of a sold-out crowd of our amazing fans who stayed to the very end. And they saw a fascinating story unfold with Matt Field who was among the drivers who really felt the loss of their former tire partner. But he turned it around, found a new tire supplier and title sponsor and was able to arrive seemingly without skipping a beat. Despite qualifying horribly, he was able to fight through an incredibly tough bracket to reach the Final against Rome, who had looked phenomenal all day. And with Matt, Rome, Fredric and Jonathan in the top 4 places, we have old and new faces battling each other in what’s shaping up to be a tremendous season. We can’t wait to see what happens at Road Atlanta next month when the PRO and PROSPEC teams take to the track!”