Deep Into The Night: Formula Drift’s Tight Canadian Combat

Well, what can I say? I continue to bring rain on every trip I take.

Last year’s excursion to Montreal for Formula Drift at the Autodrome Saint Eustache was one of my favorites of the year. I enjoyed the old architecture of the city, the foreign language of French, and of course the drifting action. The anticipation for this year’s event was pretty overwhelming, as I was keen to have a similar trip this year.

Arriving at the track on Friday morning, I was greeted by the audible gurgle of the Formula Drift Canada cars on their tirade of practice and qualifying. It wasn’t until the afternoon hit, when the American Formula Drift Championship was scheduled to start their own practice and qualifying sessions, that a herd of ominous clouds migrated overhead. This raised questions in the mind of attendees and drivers on whether or not the two sessions would stay on schedule, but they did.

The ground was already damp from rain showers earlier that morning, with a occasional drizzle and constant cloud cover keeping the moisture from drying up. In an attempt to warm their tires up to a higher operating temperature, numerous drivers spent a little more time roasting their rubber in the burnout box before their practice runs. This would give them more traction, as they battled a much colder and wetter track surface than they had hoped.

In an act of self-preservation responding to the tricky conditions, each driver kept plenty of distance from another as they filed out onto the course in pairs for their designated practice runs. The afternoon began event free, with drivers cautiously approaching the damp corners of the track well within their limits of grip.

As practice was ending and qualifying was slated to begin, the rain stopped for the evening and portions of the track began to dry. Unfortunately, this is a much worse scenario, as the mixed conditions are completely unpredictable for drivers looking to push available grip levels in the dry, and merely keep their car on track through the damp sections.

The 24 drivers at the Canadian stop were granted a single preliminary practice run immediately before their qualifying took place, in order to evaluate grip levels throughout the course. This proved to be disadvantageous for many drivers, as they led flawless preparatory runs, but would have mistakes in their judged runs immediately following.

James Deane continued his impressive performance in the Formula Drift Pro Championship with his Worthouse Nissan Silvia, taking home the number one qualifier spot early in the afternoon with an 88.

Ryan Tuerck was forced to rely on his early 87-point score, after he collided with the wall during his second qualifying run of the night. It was kind of ironic this aspect of the track would remove him from the day’s remaining festivities, as a promotional video had just aired in which Tuerck himself spoke of St. Eustache’s surrounding wall having imaginary “fingers that will grab your car if you’re too close.”

The sun set quickly during the mandatory track cleanup, which required the remainder of qualifying runs be exhibited under the fluorescent lights of the racetrack.

Mother Nature must have felt bad about the hex she’s placed on me involving inclement weather, as I awoke Saturday morning to sunshine and blue skies outside my hotel room.

The drivers began the day eager to complete practice runs to acclimate themselves with the rearranged grip levels the track had to offer. These were even more crucial than normal, now that the sunlight had not only dried up the previous day’s rain but also raised the ambient temperature of the tarmac.

In fact it was borderline too hot, some drift pilots like Dean Kearney in his Oracle Lighting Dodge Viper needed preventative fluids sprayed on his car’s radiator in between runs to decrease its running temperature.

Competitors eager to practice took to the track with leaders searching for the best offensive driving line, while their defensive following counterparts attempted to mimic their every move or force a mistake.

Unfortunately, Nate Hamilton came out of the transitional straight section a little too quickly, and collided his Enjuku Racing Nissan S13.4 with his Enjuku teammate Alec Hohnadell’s Nissan S14 just before competition started. Both teams would need to work feverishly to get their respective cars ready for the ensuing battles.

Fans piled into the relaxed atmosphere as Top 32 competition began with two former Formula Drift Champions, Dai Yoshihara and his Turn 14 Distribution Subaru BRZ against Chris Forsberg in his NOS Energy Drink Nismo 370Z. Yoshihara was able to tie together a faultless lead and chase run, advancing him to Top 16 competition over Forsberg, who seems to still be having issues with his new twin-turbo engine setup.

Eight of the 24 combatants would move on to the Top 16 via bye rounds, including Frederic Aasbø in his Rockstar Energy Toyota Corolla iM and Chelsea Denofa in his BC Racing Ford Mustang.

In one of the more energizing tandems of the night, Michael Essa hit the wall on initiation of the first turn in his Essa Autosport/Achilles Radial BMW E46, while the trailing Nate Hamilton stuck by his door for the remainder of the shaky run. It wasn’t until halfway through the run, when Essa’s tire went bouncing down the track on its own, that anyone realized he’d been drifting with three tires since his initial collision with the wall at turn one. Hamilton moved on after following the BMW’s interesting driving line, and retaining all four of its tires.

Jhonnattan Castro in the Nexen Tire Toyota 86 fought hard against the Monster Energy Ford Mustang of Vaughn Gittin, Jr. Unfortunately, despite such close proximity that he left tire marks on the Mustang’s door, the 86 just couldn’t overcome the aggressive American muscle.

One of the most commonly uttered words in Formula Drift is “angle”. It involves how sideways the car is throughout its drift in a corner. The judges want to see as much angle as possible until a car is no longer pointed forward enough to continue accelerating from initiation to corner exit. This is a tricky aspect to judge in professional drifting, however in grassroots iterations of the sport (especially in Japan), it is considered particularly special if a driver can enter a corner with the car facing nearly backward, aptly named “reverse entry”. Since this elite showcase of car control is outlawed in American competition, it’s almost never witnessed on the Formula Drift stage. However, when Ryan Tuerck set out to take his mandatory bye run, with no rulings on style and no competitor following his line, he transitioned out of the straight section and flung his car backwards entering the approaching left-handed sweeper at wide open throttle. It was beautiful. Whether it was on purpose or not, is yet to be determined.

After a halftime break, the advancing drivers all lined up on the track’s front straight for the Top 16 driver introductions as the sun started to set.

The opening battle between the duo of Dai Yoshihara and James Deane was filled with energy from the outset, capturing the mood for the rest of the evening. On Deane’s lead run, Yoshihara was able to keep good distance from his door throughout the series of turns, but it was when the two switched roles that the winner was really decided. Yoshihara demonstrated a solid lead run, but Deane’s proximity to the BRZ was unreal. He would leave just enough room for Yoshihara to transition between turns then surge right back into his close position through the turn. The judges ruled in favor of Deane’s proximity, and he would advance on to the Great 8.

Guilty of initiating too far outside, Chelsea DeNofa touched his Mustang’s rear bumper to the unforgiving wall as he started his drift in front of hometown-hero Marc Landreville’s Nissan. Unfortunately, St. Eustache’s wall’s “fingers” made themselves evident again, and pulled the rest of his Mustang in, rendering the car unusable in the process. Yep, that’s his severed wheel and suspension next to the tow truck.

Kristaps Blušs’ controlled aggressive driving has been visible at each Formula Drift stop he’s competed in. He has passion coursing through his veins once he puts on his helmet, and straps into his HGK Motorsport BMW E46. When he was put against the wildly talented and smooth operation of Matt Coffman in his Coffman Racing S13, the two put on a show for every fan in attendance. Throughout Coffman’s lead run, he was quick, full of style, tons of angle, smoke, and throttle, yet Blušs mimicked his run and somehow displayed even more car control from the chase position. The judges ruled in favor of Blušs moving onto the next round, after he spent majority of the lap only inches from the Nissan’s side.

The most carnage of the night just so happened to occur at the hands of Dean “Karnage” Kearney, during his unfortunate coming together with Matt Field’s Falken Tire Nissan S14.5. Kearney straightened too quickly on the switchback turn on the front straight, carrying with it too much speed, accidentally colliding with the rear bumper of Field’s car. This sent the Nissan careening headfirst into the wall—a wall he should have been skimming with the rear of his car. The damage looked severe, luckily both drivers walked away unscathed, and would return to their pits with their teams to fix their cars for the follow-up run.

The cars returned to the line looking like they had been cast in a Terminator film. Both with missing front bumpers and their tweaked tubing on display. Throughout Field’s chase run, he only needed to limp the battered car behind Kearney to earn the win, due to the collision in the opening run being Kearney’s fault.

Some close battles and a couple bye runs continued the competition into Final 4 territory underneath the fluorescence.

First on the list was the intense matchup of James Deane and Frederic Aasbø, where proximity overruled style. The pairing has very opposite driving techniques, which made judging the battle difficult. Aasbø is willing to sacrifice angle and smoke for the sake of proximity and speed, whereas Deane wants to slide through a corner with massive smoke and tons of angle—even if he’s giving up speed to do so. For this reason, Aasbø was able to progress into the final battle of the night, after Deane lost crucial proximity—in favor of more angle—while trailing the Corolla.

Somehow I feel like Aasbø and Blušs get matched together more than any other pairing. If you recall their dicey exchange from Long Beach earlier this year, this final battle was sure to be intense—and it was. An extremely close battle ensued between two of the sport’s top European personalities, ending with the Corolla almost colliding with the BMW as they crossed the finish line. While there was no contact during that run, the same could not be said for the follow-up with reversed roles.

It started off aggressive with both drivers looking to maximize track width, by sending the inner clipping point soaring into the fencing.

However it would all turn sour, when Blušs’ aggression surged him into the side of Aasbø. Stopping the final run of the night, with a clear winner due to contact. Aasbø took his second win of the season, while Blušs stood on the podium for his third time in 2017.

The action seems to just be heating up as we transfer into the tail end of the season. Don’t miss any of the drama that unfolds at the next stop in Washington.