James Deane wins the Opening Round

After a nail-biting finish to the 20th anniversary season, Formula DRIFT kicked off the year on the Streets of Long Beach with the PRO Championship Round 1: AutoZone Streets of Long Beach presented by TYPE S. And it did so with a raft of regulation changes as well as a crop of fresh faces to keep the veterans on their toes.

As the biggest competition change in Formula DRIFT history, the series has eliminated single-run qualifying in both its PRO and PROSPEC Championships. Fans will be able to enjoy the tandem-only competition from the first runs on Friday to the winner’s podium on Saturday. It also means that new and emerging drivers will be able to compete at each round rather than risk elimination after solo qualifying runs.

There are other rule changes designed to provide a better spectacle and keep the action flowing for fans at the track and on the hugely popular series livestream. These include the redefinition of an “incomplete” run. Previously, if a driver stopped drifting and straightened the front tyres, the run would be ruled incomplete, and no points would be awarded. Moving forward, drivers will have more latitude to make a straightening correction without the run automatically being ruled “incomplete.” If they straighten for approximately two seconds, it will still result in an “incomplete” score, but the rule change will allow the judges to evaluate the severity of the mistake and compare both runs from both competitors

Other regulations that could have a major impact will see an end to driver appeals at the track. Teams will have to register an appeal after the event. Judges will not be able to request “One More Time” (OMT) during the Friday Seeding Bracket. This means they’ll no longer be able to ask the drivers to repeat the runs and will need to declare a winner based on the two runs. However, OMT will remain available to the judges during Saturday competition heats, with five requested during this weekend.

The 2024 changes even extended to the Formula DRIFT judging panel. Vernon Zwaneveld (Netherlands) and Reese Marin (USA) joined the rotating roster. They sat alongside regular Brian Eggert (USA) for FD Long Beach. 

As recognition of Formula DRIFT’s maturity, another name was added to its Hall of Fame, which was established for the 20th anniversary and is commemorated within the City of Long Beach. Veterans Rhys Millen and Samuel Hubinette were the inaugural inductees, while double FD PRO Champion Tanner Foust was inducted this year. In a touching speech, Foust credited the series with establishing his career and opening the many doors he’s successfully passed through.

SEEDING BRACKET

With traditional solo qualifying runs replaced by the new Seeding Bracket, fans witnessed a compelling battle on Friday as 16 drivers fought to secure one of the remaining eight places in Saturday’s competition heats. 

Under the new system, the top 24 positions in the competition bracket will be determined by the finishing positions from the previous round. In the case of Long Beach, it was based on the 2023 Championship standings. But moving forward, the ranking for Round 2 will be based on the finishing results from Round 1, and so on.

Ranked number one was Aurimas Bakchis, heading the competition bracket by virtue of his second place finish in the 2023 title race. With 2023 Champion Chelsea DeNofa (USA) leaving the series, Bakchis was promoted to first. Ranked second was Matt Field (USA), with Simen Olsen (Norway) third.

For the lower ranked drivers there are several Seeding Brackets formats, which vary according to the number of drivers trying to qualify for a competition spot. With 39 drivers registered for the 2024 Formula DRIFT PRO Championship, anybody ranked 25th or below would participate in a Top 16 competitive Seeding Bracket, along with all drivers new to the series because they had no 2023 PRO ranking.

For 2024, there were seven drivers clutching new PRO licenses. These included five moving up from the PROSPEC Championship, such as 2023 Champion Ben Hobson (USA) and double PROSPEC Champion Dmitriy Brutskiy (who intends to also compete in PROSPEC this year). They were joined by Andy Hateley (USA), Rudy Hansen (USA) and Derek Madison (USA). Their ranks were bolstered by European Drift Masters Champion Conor Shanahan (Ireland) and 14-year-old Hiroya Minowa (Japan), who was runner-up in the Formula DRIFT Japan Championship.

In the Seeding 16, drivers compete in tandem runs to secure their place in Saturday’s Top 32 competition heats. And while the eight successful drivers secure positions 25-32, the remaining eight are eliminated, hopefully after demonstrating their skills to the fans and their own sponsors.

Teenager Minowa won the Seeding Bracket. Driving the Enjuku Racing / Cusco / Jerry Yang Racing Toyota GT86, the Japanese Rookie beat LZ in the Final. The win placed him 25th in the Top 32 competition heats, which meant he’d face Dylan Huges (USA) on Saturday.

With LZ second in 26th place, he would meet triple FD Champion Chris Forsberg (USA) in the Top 32. While third place Rookie Shanahan was paired against the hard-charging Ryan Tuerck (USA).

PRO COMPETITION

After team leader Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA) became a part-time driver in 2023 and DeNofa departed the series after finally winning the Championship, the burden of expectation for the RTR Motorsports team fell on the shoulders of James Deane (Ireland). Fortunately, the three-time Formula DRIFT Champion (2017-19) is among the best in the world. And after taking a year to master the right-hand drive AutoZone Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD, Deane claimed his first victory since the St Louis Round in 2019. 

Deane’s involvement in the opening round was cast into doubt following a catastrophic fire that engulfed the Mustang during a Tuesday demo run. However, the RTR team worked tirelessly to repair the charred Mustang, which bore its scars throughout the weekend. 

It was the arrival of rain that played a major part in Deane’s victory. No self-respecting Irishman was going to baulk at a bit of precipitation, even if it reached torrential proportions by the time the Final rolled around. Making the victory even sweeter, Deane defeated two Norwegians on route, who were equally adept in slippery conditions, to claim the win.

Deane had an exceptionally challenging path to the Final. In the Top 32 he faced a determined Federico Sceriffo (Italy) who has mastered the challenging Pennzoil / Nexen Tire / VP Racing Fuel / Drifting Dept 17 Ferrari 599 GTB and was determined to exploit its V12 power. Unfortunately, the Mustang driver precisely filled every zone and moved on to meet Jonathan Hurst (USA) in the Top 16. 

Driving the new MRCOOL Cadillac XLR, Hurst has become an increasing threat and Deane was asked to run One More Time (OMT) on two occasions before the judges could separate the two drivers. At the first attempt, it appeared to be over in a few seconds as Hurst over-rotated in Outside Zone 1 (OZ1). However, Deane hit the wall in OZ3 shortly after and ran off the track. It transpired that a gremlin from Tuesday’s fire had caused an electrical problem that would intermittently cut power, causing the Mustang to leave the track.

After making repairs and with fingers crossed, the pair ran five more times. Stretching throughout the Top 16 heats, their final two runs took place on a wet track. The treacherous conditions allowed the triple Champion to demonstrate his car control. However, the reward was a place in the Top 8 against three-time Champion Fredric Aasbo (Norway) driving the Rockstar Energy / Toyota Racing GR Supra.

With a string of epic battles between them and a slick track under their Nitto Tires, the crowd held its breath as the two men hit their marks, replicating each other’s performance. As a result, the judges requested OMT and it was a nudge in OZ1 that perhaps made the difference. Seeming to knock Aasbo off-line, Deane maintained insane proximity through the second half of the run and was awarded the win.

Moving into the Final 4, the Irishman beat Bakchis in another ballet dance on a treacherous track that appeared to be in slow motion as the drivers grappled for traction. Amid a downpour, Bakchis made a small mistake, hitting the wall in OZ1 in the chase position. It caused him to over-rotate slightly and drop back. The lost proximity gave Deane the win.

With the weather wreaking havoc on the track, cars, teams, spectators and even the livestream broadcast equipment, James Deane and Simen Olsen emerged on the starting line amid a torrential storm. This isn’t NASCAR, and drifters don’t stop for rain, so when the red light extinguished, what appeared to be Jet Skis created a bow wave on the first turn. With Olsen setting a deep line through the turns, Deane was ludicrously close throughout the run. However, on his lead run, Deane was able to run even deeper into the Zones while Olsen struggled to match his angle and duration of proximity. 

It was a close call but the win meant James Deane embarked on his mission to become the first ever four-time Champion in Formula DRIFT history. And after such a stressful weekend, the Irishman fought back the tears on the podium. 

“I can’t believe what happened. When I was declared the winner, I fell to the ground in the emotion. It’s been such a challenging week after coming back from the fire on Tuesday and the weird things happening to the car throughout the weekend. But we never gave up. And then it started raining. Conditions changed so much, but we pushed hard and managed to reach the Final with Simen after beating some of the best. I’m so happy and so proud of the team. Bring on Atlanta!” said a visibly strained Deane.

Olsen’s second place equalled his best result in New Jersey last year and continued the success he achieved since joining Bakchis at Team Feal. And with the boss in third, they’ve put the paddock on notice that Team Feal is gunning for glory.

Top Rookie was Minowa driving the Enjuku Racing / Cusco / Jerry Yang Racing Toyota GT86. After placing first in the Seeding Battle, the 14 year-old defeated Dylan Hughes (USA) and teammate Kazuya Taguchi (Japan) before he was eliminated by Bakchis in the Top 8. Finishing eighth overall, Minowa will undoubtedly be a name to watch for several decades.

Not only was Hughes and the Royal Purple E46 BMW 2JZ eliminated from the Top 32, placing him 17th overall, but so was Adam LZ in the LZMFG E36 BMW. After finishing second in the Seeding Bracket, he was defeated by Chris Forsberg (USA).

The Top 16 then claimed Forsberg, who lost Rome Charpentier. Ryan Tuerck (USA) fell to Nick Noback (USA), while Matt Field (USA) fell to Ken Gushi (Japan). Gushi would eventually finish fourth in the GReddy Racing / Moty’s Toyota GR86.

In the list of unfulfilled promises, Ben Hobson (USA) topped the charts. After dominating the 2023 Link ECU PROSPEC Championship in a Team Feal Nissan S14, Hobson replaced outgoing PRO Champion DeNofa at RTR Motorsports. However, a crash during Friday practice led to a technical problem during his first Seeding Bracket run against Sceriffo’s Ferrari. After losing power in the final corner, the team discovered a damaged throttle cable but was unable to effect a repair within the allotted 5 minutes. 

As the rain continued to fall, we spoke to Ryan Sage, President of Formula DRIFT: “Our 21st season kicked off with incredible energy. It began with a car parade in downtown Long Beach on Thursday, where you could feel the excitement. We introduced a new Seeding Bracket format that I think has raised the expectations of what each race weekend will look like. We want to give more air time to drivers who wouldn’t necessarily get as many battles. And we were having an incredible series of competition heats until the rain drastically changed the dynamic. It favoured drivers who were prepared and comfortable in the conditions. Yet it was so special to see James Deane, the fire guy from Tuesday, find the motivation and take it all the way to the podium. We saw a lot of remarkable performances, but James was the standout, and congratulations to him and the team.”

After the first round, Ford leads the Manufacturer’s Cup, thanks to James’ success. While in the Tire Cup, Formula DRIFT welcomed a sixth tire supplier when Kumho joined. However, Nitto leads the points standings thanks to James and Fredric by a narrow margin from GT Radial, thanks to Team Feal.

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