Formula Drift crowned a new champion this weekend in front of a sell-out crowd at Irwindale Event Center, with points leader Michael Essa winning his first series title – even as he sat on the sidelines with a blown engine.
“I always thought this was possible,” said an enthusiastic Essa (LEFT) soon after learning of his victory. “But being up here is just insane.”
The result wasn't without controversy, however, as rival Chris Forsberg charged a fellow competitor with throwing a match to help Essa secure the title.
Formula Drift follows a knock-out elimination format, with a panel of judges scoring drivers on their speed and sideways style as they progress through a series of head-to-head battles. Drivers are awarded points as they climb each step of the competition ladder.
Essa earned the top position in Friday qualifying to score 12 points and extend his lead in the standings. It was his event to lose on Saturday and for a moment, it looked like he might.
In Formula Drift, the top qualifier is pitted against the lowest one for the first round of competition and Luke Pakula's Toyota AE86 should have been no match for Essa's BMW M3.
After putting down a strong opening run with good speed and big smoke, Essa's engine failed – which opened the door for 2009 champion Forsberg and his 2013 Nissan 370Z to overtake him in the contest. But, in an unexpected turn of events, rookie Pakula declared he was also unable to continue after transmission trouble in his Toyota AE86, and Essa advanced automatically to the next round – despite the blown engine. That put Forsberg in the tough position of having to finish second or better to keep his championship hope alive.
The move sparked a controversy reminiscent of the recent NASCAR Sprint Cup team orders scandal involving Michael Waltrip Racing. Although privateer Pakula was insistent that he had no choice but to concede the match, Forsberg questioned the legitimacy of the mechanical failure and protested to race officials that championship strategy was at play.
Officials denied the protest and Essa's championship victory was sealed when Forsberg lost his match against eventual event winner Daigo Sato during the round of eight drivers.
Forsberg's performance on Saturday was enough to score him the runner-up position in the 2013 championship, while event winner Daigo Saito finished the season in third.
The controversy cast a pall over the paddock during an otherwise exciting round of Formula Drift competition, igniting the grumbles about subjectivity and unfairness that accompany any judged sport, from figure skating to pro snowboarding.
The fans hardly seemed to notice, however, with an estimated 20,000 enthusiastic ticket-holders passing through the gates of Irwindale Event Center over two days of the best-attended drifting event in the venue's history.
The season finale at Irwindale is always a highlight stop, with drivers typically putting it all on the line in a nothing-to-lose display of car control that sees drivers sliding at high speed just inches from trackside walls – and each other. It was standing room only for those who turned up on Saturday to buy tickets at the gate, and the venue reached capacity and closed its doors before the evening's competition even began.
Opening ceremonies featured a spectacular fireworks display celebrating the conclusion of Formula Drift's 10th-anniversary season. Competition saw big smoky slides all night on the course, which used parts of the oval and infield at the facility, and exciting too-close-to-call matches between Ryan Tuerck and Fredric Aasbo, Forsberg and Odi Bakchis, and Robbie Nishida and Forrest Wang.
The venue, where the first professional drifting event took place in the United States back in 2003, is the spiritual home of the sport and is often referred to as “The House of Drift.”
Lexus scored the series' vehicle manufacturer's championship, while Hankook Tires scored the tire suppliers' title.