Catching their drift
The FIA’s embrace of a sport born of illegal street racing may smack of getting down with the kids – but that might not be a bad thing
When grandees like Jean Todt put their weight behind drifting, you know this most spectacular form of motor sport has finally come of age. Because, yes, the FIA has officially ruled – drifting is a sport. It will be joining F1, the WRC and WEC as an officially sanctioned championship come the first ever Intercontinental Drifting Cup, due to be held later this year in Japan.
Why would Todt put the full weight of the FIA behind an activity regarded by many as little more than four-wheeled chest beating, conducted in glorified car parks in front of energy-drink fuelled crowds of gamers and social media addicts? Is this really the future? For all his time at the very highest level of motor sport, maybe Todt’s formative years going sideways in rally cars give him a greater appreciation of the skill involved. Or perhaps he sees the adoption of drifting in the official FIA portfolio as a way of introducing a new generation of fans into the official world of motor sport.
“With the creation of the FIA Intercontinental Drifting Cup, we are building the framework for a standard format that will help the sport continue to grow from grass-roots level to more professional competitions globally,” says Todt. “We are setting the standard for what I’m sure will be a hugely successful form of motor sport.”
Traditionalists will require some convincing. For starters, how can a series based on subjective judging be considered equal to the objective, results-driven mindset of competition decided by the clock or track position? At worst this devalues the fundamental sporting principles the FIA is intended to uphold and regulate. At best it simply panders to the limited attention spans of a generation too impatient to invest the time and effort required for true sporting endeavour, be that as a fan or competitor.
Look at it this way, though. Among Team GB’s impressive Olympic medal haul from Rio, is Max Whitlock’s achievement in winning gold in a judged sport like gymnastics any less impressive or credible than that achieved by the cyclists, swimmers or athletes racing against each other or the stopwatch? Is his skill, physical condition, self-discipline or sacrifice considered any less impressive?
Of course not.
“They’ve just got to understand that what we do with the cars is the most exciting thing going up the hill at Goodwood,” says Steve ‘Baggsy’ Biagioni, one of Britain’s most successful drifters, at this year’s Festival of Speed. Given the pedigree of some of the cars and drivers going through their paces for the crowds on Lord March’s lawn, that could sound deliberately provocative. He’s unapologetic though. “Right now I could take this car, I could put a set of slicks on it, I don’t think I’d be that far outside the top 20 – I mean it’s got 1200bhp, it’s a GT-R, it’s a drift car and the amount of engineering that goes into these cars is as good as any other car in the paddock.” Essex-boy swagger, or a front-line competitor encouraged by apparent mainstream acceptance of what was once an illicit, underground sport?
Vaughn Gittin Jr, the first American to win a D1 Grand Prix drift contest, displays similar levels of self-belief, albeit presented in slightly more considered terms. “A lot of people start out road racing or in karts. But if you start drifting you get an understanding of driving a car right at the limit or beyond, so stepping back to more traditional motor sport becomes a bit easier,” he reckons.
All very well. But drifting ace Ken Block’s attempted transition from YouTube sensation to stage rally driver hardly resulted in a trophy cabinet to rival Loeb or Ogier.
So, before hearing more from the likes of Gittin Jr and Baggsy, let’s consider what drifting is all about. The current sport has its origins in the illegal road-racing scene of Japan (though the drifter’s art can be traced back to Grand Prix racing’s pioneers, most famously Tazio Nuvolari who according to Enzo Ferrari invented the four-wheel drift), and is often referred to as Touge after the Japanese word for the mountain passes on which races took place.
Against the clock these were effectively illicit rally stages, the combination of hairpin bends and rear-wheel-drive cars resulting in an appetite for opposite lock familiar to anyone with an appreciation of old-fashioned rallying. And in head-to-head battles, holding a car sideways became an established blocking technique to stop rivals getting past. Immortalised in popular culture by Initial D (a Japanese manga comic strip), films and computer games, drifting’s underground heroes evolved from local legends into global celebrities among a growing worldwide community of drifters.
By the turn of the millennium drifting was taking its initial steps into mainstream acceptability. This was helped enormously by the first drifting championship – the 2001 D1 Grand Prix, which took place in Japan and formalised many of the key elements of the sport. Using techniques perfected in Japanese street racing, drivers now had to impress judges – including ‘The Drift King’ Keiichi Tsuchiya – with their accuracy, smoothness, speed and commitment over closed courses. After solo qualifying runs drivers then competed in knockout head-to-head battles – known as Tsuiso – where cars battle for points based on proximity to each other, aggression and forcing rivals into errors. This template will be carried over to the FIA International Drifting Cup and, if all goes well, a series to follow run by long-standing D1 promoter SUNPROS.
Short courses, fast-paced competition and the knockout aspect of the judging all contribute to drifting’s popularity as a spectacle. The fact many of its venues are arranged so fans can see all the action in one arena is also part of the appeal – sitting in a vast circuit complex relying on a radio earpiece to find out what is going on, this is not. Open-book regulations mean the cars are spectacular to look at and watch too, becoming extensions of the drivers’ personalities – where else will you see 1000hp cars based on everything from rotary-engined MX-5s to Murciélagos and Mustangs going hell for leather inches apart?
At the top level the cars are as exotic and extreme as any you’ll encounter in the motor sport world, despite their superficial resemblance to street machinery. Accessibility will also be on the FIA’s radar, though: drifting will remain among the more affordable routes into a motor sport career. You don’t need an F1 driver as a father, vast amounts of cash or to have been driving karts from pre-school age to get into this sport – as the FIA itself puts it: a rear-wheel-drive car, some private land and lots of practice are enough to get you on going.
“I’m self-taught,” says Gittin Jr, by way of example. “I’ve done skateboarding, I’ve done BMX, I’ve done motocross and now drifting and, a few years in, I’ve done some road racing too. I think it has a lot to offer to any driver.”
Will involving the suits at the FIA destroy drifting’s rebellious appeal? “I don’t think it’s going to take anything away,” says Baggsy. “I think they will have to recognise it’s not your average motor sport. It’s something a little bit edgy, but that is why the younger audience is going to love this. You’ll still have circuit racing but the fans are all into drifting and rallycross, too. Fan participation is where the action is and drifting is one of those activities – it is where motor sport is going.”
Gittin Jr isn’t worried either. “The core scene will always be there,” he says. “You’re never going to change the people in drifting. I don’t have concerns because the sport is built on drivers; it’s a very individual sport that includes personal style on and off the track. I don’t think you can ever formalise that.”
OK. So, the drifters aren’t afraid of being told to grow up. What do they think FIA sanctioning can add? Gittin Jr again: “I’ve been on the drifting working group for nearly a year with the FIA – and for the sport it means it’s caught the attention. People are really realising it’s a real motor sport and not just kids having fun. It’s that too – but this is validating, for sure.” How will that work on a practical level? “People in Germany do it differently from the UK and people in America do it differently from people in Japan,” he says.
“I think it would be good to get some standard technical regulations and some overall judging regulations to really make it this unified global sport and that’s what I’m most excited about.”
As a UK-based driver Baggsy is hoping for a clearer licensing process for drivers. “It’s been difficult for me because I don’t have a drift licence recognised by my home country,” he says. “I have a D1 Japanese licence as an invited driver so I’m one of the lucky ones. The MSA is going to have to follow suit when it comes to issuing licences.”
Still, you may be thinking, what exactly is the point of all this? For the drivers it’s clear enough. “It is the most fun thing you can do with a car!” says Baggsy. “There is nothing more exciting than when a car breaks traction and you’re sliding at anything around 80mph.”
For Gittin Jr it’s all about giving the fans what they want. “The reason drifting is so exciting and the fastest-growing motor sport in the world is because it’s so action-packed,” he says. “You don’t have to agree with the judge, you can have your own opinion and it just creates this really cool thing we haven’t had in traditional motor sports, ever.”
Bred in the social media age the drivers are keen to interact with the fans, too – tellingly the conversation with Gittin Jr takes place on a bench outside the red-carpeted Goodwood drivers’ club and as we chat he greets fans, signs posters and poses for selfies.
“I think any real driver has respect for drifting,” he says. “They know what it takes to do it. They may not get it, but they have to respect the skill and the car control so there’s definitely a lot of interest. It’s cool to see the traditional motor sport fans get up and clap.”
Baggsy shares his enthusiasm. “Some respect the sport and some don’t, but that’s cool. I like converting people.”
And his advice for Todt and those seeking to make drifting respectable? “It’s tomorrow’s motor sport for the younger generation and the FIA needs to understand that.” This autumn’s first sanctioned event suggests that Todt and the suits are well on the way to doing just that.
IMAGES: LARRY CHEN, GOODWOOD & REDBULL
DRIVING NISSAN’S 1360BHP DRIFT RECORD GT-R
With few limits on power or modification, front-line drift cars are among the more extreme machines competing today. But what are they actually like to drive?
Nissan’s incredible 1360BHP GT-R holds the world record for the fastest ever drift – 190.6mph at an angle of more than 30 degrees for a distance of 50 metres – and I got to drive it before its retirement to the company museum.
So, what’s it like? Wild. Factory car or not it’s packed with aftermarket parts, the bulk of the engine work coming from GReddy, including a stroker kit to take the twin-turbo V6 from 3.8 to 4.0 litres plus the inevitable nitrous injection. In total the build cost about half a million pounds – serious money.
Unlike road-going GT-Rs the drift car is rear-drive only, the power put down through an OS Super Lock differential running an 80 per cent locking ratio and keen to spin up the tyres with every upshift through the six-speed sequential gearbox. These punch through with a brutal shunt via the mechanical shifter, fresh plumes of tyre smoke erupting in your wake. And once it goes sideways it’s a case of holding your nerve and the throttle, picking your line and going for it. Soft suspension helps the weight transfers and a drift-spec SPL steering rack, with more lock than a black cab, means even when you think you’re halfway through a spin you have more to wind on.
Drifting in a wide loop through your own tyre smoke fills the cabin with vaporised rubber, the cacophony of turbos and exhaust noise is relentless and the sheer outrageousness of the angles it will hold totally counter-intuitive. You can argue the point of it all. But at the wheel it’s mad, bad and utterly addictive.