Bakchis wins Formula DRIFT PRO Championship Round 8: Type S Title Fight, Stuke wins FD Link ECU PROSPEC Championship Round 4
The return to Irwindale Speedway, The House of Drift, for the Formula DRIFT Final Round is a tradition that’s stood since the series began in 2004. It’s the only track that remained on the schedule, even through the pandemic. And for the 2021 Finals, the drivers in the FD PRO and Link ECU PROSPEC Championships were greeted by a revised course layout. It comprised a new section that better defined Outside Zone 3 by placing additional concrete K rails to highlight the drivers’ performance.
With the weather in the low 70s, the elements wouldn’t be a factor in deciding the winners of the two Championships. Instead, it would be in the hands of the 19 drivers with a mathematical chance of winning one of the two titles, including three former Champions and six Rookies.
Amid the celebrations on Saturday night, the Final round of the 2021 season also represented the end of an era. Three pillars of the sport were leaving the series: 2011 FD PRO Champion Dai Yoshihara (Japan) is retiring; 2010 and 2020 FD PRO Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr is leaving to focus on other projects; and Formula DRIFT president and co-founder, Jim Liaw, is moving to PRI but will retain a role in the series. All three have been with the series since it began in 2004 and will be missed by staff, teams, and fans alike.
As with any competition, disappointment lurks around every corner. And as 34 PROSPEC drivers attempted to qualify for the Top 32 competition places, the hammer would fall on the unwary. In fact, eight drivers were unable to complete a successful qualifying run and were eliminated, providing the top six drivers with a bye run in the competition heats.
For the first time in his rookie season, Tommy Lemaire (Canada) would dominate qualifying in his TLO Drift School Nissan S14.5 V8. Sitting third in the Championship table, a mere 22 points behind the leader, Lemaire took the first step in achieving the unimaginable.
With a qualifying score of 94 points, Lemaire had a healthy margin from second place Nick Noback (USA) in the KoruWorks BMW E46 and third-placed Blake Olsen (USA) driving the KoruWorks / GT Radial BMW E92. Both drivers scored 88 points, with Noback getting the nod for a superior angle score.
PROSPEC points leader and reigning Champion, Dmitriy Brutskiy (Belarus), qualified fifth in the Essa Autosport / ISC Suspension BMW E46, keeping him in the chase.
Thirteen drivers had a mathematical chance of taking the 2021 Link ECU PROSPEC Championship but it came down to one man to make history: Brutskiy was crowned the first two-time Champion, and he did it in back-to-back seasons after making the decision to remain in PROSPEC this year rather than move to the PRO Championship. That decision was clearly vindicated and he’s still not rushing to move to the premier league. The driver from Belarus will only commit to FD PRO if he can put together the right package to ensure he can remain competitive.
“The back-to-back win was a lot of work but I’m super-excited,” Brutskiy told us. “My goal was a podium at every round, which we achieved after some really close battles. I’m thankful to all my sponsors and family but it really came down to Never Settle. We overcame a lot of obstacles and it needs to sink in but I’m looking forward to whatever comes next. We’re looking to next year and open to new deals to get us into FD PRO, but if not we’ll stay in PROSPEC and aim for a third Championship!”
A perfect weekend for Brutskiy was spoiled by a second-place finish in the Round 4 Final, which he lost to Daniel Stuke (USA) driving the MspeK Performance Nissan S14.
It was an eventful Round for Stuke, who was knocked out of the Final 4 heats by Noback until his team protested Noback’s roof, which detached itself as the drivers initiated at high-speed into the first turn. In an unusual decision reversal, the heat win was taken away from Noback and awarded to Stuke, who proceeded to beat Brutskiy in the Final and claim his first Round win. The 100 points awarded would catapult him from 12th in the Link ECU PROSPEC Championship to fourth.
“It’s been an incredible event,” Stuke told us after the podium ceremony. “I got my FD licence here, my first podium here, and now my first win at Irwindale. I’m beyond stoked and still shaking from the realization, but I’m thinking about moving to FD PRO next year since I have the opportunity.”
Noback finished third on the night and claimed second in the Championship, a narrow 15-point margin behind Brutskiy. And while Brutskiy won’t yet commit to the 2022 FD PRO Championship, Noback is looking forward to stepping up to the premier class
PROSPEC Rookie Lemaire, who qualified first and was a real threat to Brutskiy’s Championship aspirations, was knocked out of competition in the Top 16 heats by Adam Knapik (Poland) driving the Apple Valley Speedway / OpXma BaZery Nissan S14. While Knapik would end the night in fourth, Lemaire’s ninth place was enough to retain a remarkable third in the Link ECU Championship and be crowned PROSPEC Rookie of the Year.
At the end of every season, the top eight PROSPEC drivers automatically receive PRO licenses, allowing them to move up to the premier category. However, we’ll have to see how many prefer to fortify their PROSEPC programs and take aim at the 2022 Championship title.
With the intensity set to 11, the expectant crowd was waiting to see which gunfighter would blink first. As points leader, Fredric Aasbo (Norway) was first to draw, setting an almost perfect 95-point run, which would eventually convert to first place for his Rockstar Energy Drink Toyota GR Supra.
Knowing what he needed to beat, Matt Field (USA) left the gates hard in the Falken Tire / Drift Cave Chevrolet Corvette. He appeared to have the measure of Aasbo until the torque tube failed entering the final turn. With an audible gasp circulating the grandstands, the Vette was pushed back to the pits and miraculously made it out for the second run. With a healthy car under him, Field set a 93-point run, which secured 22nd position under KQF rules.
What Chelsea DeNofa (USA) did next was totally unexpected. Or was it? Recycling a strategy he employed at FD Seattle, DeNofa appeared to struggle to find the correct line and angle. Or did he? Receiving high-fives from his crew, it became apparent he was attempting to manipulate the qualification seeding by deliberating receiving a low score. And while 19th might not seem ideal, don’t forget DeNofa qualified 28th in Seattle and won the Round!
Perhaps what DeNofa hadn’t accounted for was two cars withdrawing and a third being eliminated, gifting the top three drivers, including the Championship points leader, a bye run through the Top 32.
The other bye run recipients were Aurimas Bakchis (Lithuania), who put his Falken Tire / Feal Suspension Nissan S15 in second position, while Michael Essa (USA) qualified his FCP Euro / Liqui Moly / GT Radial BMW M3 in third. And while Essa is out of title contention, Bakchis definitely had a shout. Not only was he fourth overall but arrived at Irwindale with the wind of his Long Beach win under his wings.
Other FD PRO qualifying highlights included reigning Champion, Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA), sandbagging like teammate DeNofa, putting his Monster Energy Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-D in 21st position for what will be his final Formula DRIFT event for the foreseeable future.
Retiree, Dai Yoshihara (Japan) wanted to leave the series in a blaze of glory and put his Turn 14 Distribution / Falken Tire / ENEOS Oil Subaru BRZ in 6th.
After six years of narrowly missing the top spot, 2015 FD PRO Champion Aasbo can add the 2021 Champion trophy to his collection thanks to his impeccable driving and the support of the Papadakis team. And while he lost in the Round 8 Final to Bakchis, Aasbo had amassed sufficient points from four second-place finishes and a Round win in St Louis to claim the crown.
“Oh my gosh, I just erupted when I won the Championship because it’s so much hard work, not just for me but for the team supporting me, and the countless people who have my back,” Aasbo explained after the podium. “When you win a Championship against this field of drivers, it’s hard to describe how it feels. It’s been six years since we won the first Championship and this was a much harder fight. It’s a testament to everybody, but it means a lot to me personally. I’d been in a slump and wasn’t sure if I had it anymore, but I think it’s pretty clear I still do, which gives me renewed energy to prepare for 2022.”
Equipped with a new stroked engine that appeared to deliver power and reliability, Aasbo’s path to the Final started with a bye run in the Top 32, followed by a Top 16 win over rookie Jonathan Hurst (USA) who drives the Cash Racing Infiniti G37. In the Top 8, Aasbo defeated Toyota teammate Ryan Tuerck (USA) in the Gumout / Nitto Tire / Mobil 1 Toyota Corolla Hatchback. It proved to be a thrilling demonstration of drifting precision by both drivers.
In the Top 4, Aasbo faced his arch nemesis and defending Champion, Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA) in the Monster Energy Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-D. Gittin had prevented Aasbo from winning Championships in the past, but the Norwegian would triumph this time!
It was another epic duel, with both drivers fully committed to their craft, and Aasbo’s narrow win secured sufficient points to crown him Champion. Immediately, the massive relief brought tears and a tribute to the skill of his fellow competitors and family.
The Final was a spectacular battle against Bakchis, which saw exchanges of paint and respect. With Bakchis receiving the judges’ decision, he added a third win to his 2021 tally and jumped to third in the Championship standings.
“I came into this Round putting pressure on myself to make up points so I could stand on the Championship podium and we did it!” said a delighted Bakchis after the trophy ceremony. “As we were battling through the rounds we just kept looking to the next one, but everybody around me in the points chase was also advancing, which made it tough. But winning the Round secured third overall and energizes me to get that Championship win next year!”
Odi’s gain was DeNofa’s loss as the former Championship leader could only finish seventh at FD IRW, dropping him to fourth in the points table. DeNofa’s decision to sandbag in qualifying didn’t pay off but his Irwindale assault began well when his Top 32 competitor failed to start.
DeNofa then faced Essa in the Top 16. And while the 2013 FD Champion had an awkward start to the 2021 season, it had been fortified at each subsequent round, arriving at Irwindale with renewed determination, illustrated by his third-place qualification.
While Essa and DeNofa have different drift styles, they possessed more than enough experience to adapt to their opponent and remain competitive. As a result, the judges were unable to separate their performances, calling for them to repeat their runs on two occasions.
Each run became faster and more punishing, inevitably resulting in a collision on run five when Essa was in the lead position. DeNofa was infeasibly close, obscured within the smoke screen when he span to a halt. However, the drone camera revealed Essa had slowed to regain control, initiating the impact.
After repairs were made, DeNofa took no chances. He had a competitive advantage in the scoring but launched off the line with only winning in mind. His pace made it difficult for Essa to gain proximity and drift angle, which was enough for DeNofa to finally advance to the Top 8.
Scrambling out of the frying pan, DeNofa faced the fire of Matt Field with whom he’d traded the FD PRO Championship points lead all season. With both attempting to wrestle the 2021 trophy from Aasbo’s grasp, DeNofa set a spectacular lead run but Field was by his side throughout. With the positions reversed, Field made two false starts as nerves jangled under the pressure. At the third attempt, he fired the Corvette into the Irwindale banking. DeNofa easily matched the pace but not the precision, tapping the Mustang’s bumper twice on the concrete wall. As he fought to regain control, DeNofa found himself on the wrong side of Inside Clip 1 and was partially off the track. With another hit on Outside Zone 2, the drivers finished together but Field would advance and DeNofa’s Championship run was over.
Finishing seventh on the night, DeNofa dropped to fourth in the Championship and needs a reset for 2022.
Field would progress to the Top 4 to meet Falken teammate, Bakchis. A collision at Inside Clip 2 was judged to be Field’s fault and he was unable to overcome the disadvantage on the second run. It placed Field fourth on the night and moved him to second in the FD PRO Championship.
Gittin departed the series in style, claiming third on the night and remaining fifth overall behind teammate DeNofa.
Top FD PRO Rookie at Irwindale was Jonathan Hurst (USA) who placed 15th in the Cash Racing Infiniti G37. However, Simen Olsen (Norway) driving the Race Supply Toyota GR Supra will be crowned the FD PRO Rookie of the Year by finishing 15th overall.
Aasbo’s performance helped both Toyota win the 2021 Formula DRIFT PRO Auto Cup and Nitto claim the Tire Cup
And so we give the final word for the final time to outgoing Formula DRIFT President, Jim Liaw: “This was a great way to end a great season, and after the trials we had to overcome in 2020 it was incredible to see fans back here at Irwindale, witnessing the phenomenal driving. However, it’s bittersweet for me because this will be my last event as President, but I’m so happy to end on a magnificent high with another exciting Final. There was so much energy and talent here, which is what puts the sport in a great place. So, I look forward to seeing what 2022 brings and I know Ryan Sage will continue to strengthen and improve Formula DRIFT.”
2021 FORMULA DRIFT CHAMPIONSHIP RESULTS
ROUND 8 FD PRO TOP 16 DRIVER POINTS
2021 FD PRO CHAMPIONSHIP TOP 16 RESULTS
2021 AUTO CUP TOP FIVE RESULTS
2021 TIRE CUP RESULTS
ROUND 4 FD PROSPEC TOP 16 DRIVER POINTS
2021 FD PROSPEC CHAMPIONSHIP TOP 16 RESULTS
Formula DRIFT will announce its 2022 schedule at its annual SEMA press conference in the Media Center, or visit formulad.com after the announcement.