The path towards the 2017 Formula Drift Pro Championship continued on the banks at Orlando Speed World (OSW) in Orlando, FL after a very interesting opening round in Long Beach. This is the 3rd year the series has run in Orlando where competition keeps getting more tense for the best runs against the wall; it keeps getting hotter too, even after this year was moved up to April. The differences between Long Beach and Orlando are stark, flat streets versus the high banked oval of OSW. An extremely rough and even bouncy transition section in the middle of the track continues to shake drivers up, lifting nearly all 4 tires off the ground in some situations as drivers try to gauge how much throttle to give and not thrash into the lead driver, all while trying to keep close proximity into the final turn.
The OSW layout continues to be somewhat basic even, but before you know it, OSW’s high banked wall will suck you in or the hard bank-to-track transition will wreck havoc on a driver’s car. There were many questions to be answered like how would James Deane fair on the very different Oval track? Would Alex Heilbrunn continue to show the leaps and bounds of growth that we’ve seen? OSW would prove to also be quite interesting and continue to shake up the Championship standings, still very early in the 2017 season.
Pro qualifying gave us a look at who would later have the most success during competition with Dai Yoshihara (95), Fredric Aasbo (93), Ryan Tuerck (93), James Deane (92), and Michael Essa (91) rounding out the Top 5 qualifiers. Qualifying scores do not always tell the complete story of the day however with Vaughn Gittin Jr. qualifying all the way back in 22nd and later nearly taking it all the way, deep in Top 16 competition. But were Gittin Jr. and other teams just playing it safe all along? After qualifying, Round 2 had a whopping 5 bye-runs, which Formula Drift chose to not even make the drivers complete their normal 1-run dance. Definitely the first of a few fan-favored moves to ensure cars continue to move on to Top 16 without the risk of mechanical issues or a silly error during a non-tandem lap around OSW.
Shaking up the Championship points first came from Alex Heilbrunn not making it into Top 16 due to a couple of interesting line choices during his first Top 32 battle with Cameron Moore and later debeading a tire in their OMT battle. Ken Gushi was an extremely high qualifier in 6th place yet after blowing a motor in practice found himself going out against Kyle Mohan (who had coincidently also blown his rotary motor earlier), perhaps due to the motor swap and a less-than-stellar follow run.
Top 16 started with the number one qualifier Dai Yoshihara showing his first competition battle of the day since he did not need to run in Top 32, advancing on to the Great Eight after a fantastic lead and follow run against Nate Hamilton.
Dean Kearney over-rotated during his lead run against Piotr Wiecek just as they crossed the finish line, after Piotr already had a fantastic door-to-door bank run, leaving Kearny with quite a bit to make up during his follow run. Luckily for Kearney, Piotr would get sucked into that OSW banked-wall and would later not be able to make the necessary repairs to his car for a OMT battle, opening the door for Dean Kearney move on to the Great Eight.
Jhonnattan Castro v. James Deane was one of the most exciting and talked about battles of the day, especially given the momentum that Deane had coming into OSW. Castro has a huge fan-base and following in Orlando, it truly was an epic battle with both drivers being nearly 100% on-point and the crowd cheering on for the duration of the runs. Castro had a killer following run, initiating on the wall, sucked up against Deane and mirroring his every move. The follow and lead were too-close to call and went OMT. Castro repeated for an even better following run, probably one of the best of his career. James Deane had slightly less angle coming around the final bank and not as close proximity to Castro, taking out Deane and giving Jhonnattan Castro a huge victory, taking out the now-former Championship points leader. The Dominican Republic driver fans were going nuts!
The battle of the BMW’s with Michael Essa vs Kristaps Bluss gave us one of the most smoke-inducing runs of the day. Both cars produce immense amounts of smoke and make it hard for the following car to see what’s in front of them. Kristaps had a difficult time keeping his line following Essa, perhaps from all of the smoke, and resulted in being the deciding factor to Essa moving on to the Eight. Fredric Aasbo had a great lead run against Matt Field, only to have Field not even get a chance of redemption after a tire debeaded. Aasbo moves on and get’s even closer to his second-straight victory in Orlando.
Cameron Moore would make it difficult for himself to continue on to the Great Eight after spinning on his lead run against Alec Hohnadell. All Alec had to do was have a decent lead run, and that’s what he did, solidifying his spot in the next round. Middle-of-the-field qualifier Chris Forsberg went up against Ryan Tuerck for a bro-battle which would result in little fan-fair after Forsberg’s following line was a little off, also maybe due to smoke and visibility. Vaughn Gittin Jr. easily took out Kyle Mohan, Mohan fighting continued engine issues and then spinning out at the end of his following run. The Great Eight was set.
Dai Yoshihara continued to have both excellent lead and following runs and would place himself into a guaranteed podium of at least third-place after taking out Dean Kearney in the first Great Eight battle.
Everyone was excited for Michael Essa vs. Jhonnattan Castro after the amazing runs that Castro had against James Deane in Top 16. Essa had an amazing lead run against the wall and his BMW produced enough smoke to throw Castro’s line off. Castro had a phenomenal day but would be taken out of this battle, moving Essa on to the Final Four battle and later opening the door for Aasbo to move up in Championship Points.
Fredric Aasbo vs. Alec Hohnadell would be decided mostly from Alec’s lead run, a bit of a shake-and-shimmy from dragging the wall would prove to be an ending to his day; Aasbo moves on. Ryan Tuerck and Vaughn Gittin Jr. would battle all the way to a OMT before the Final Four was set, with Gittin Jr. moving on after Tuerck had mechanical issues in his follow run.
Two of the most consistent drivers of the entire weekend would battle next, Michael Essa vs. Dai Yoshihara. Essa had previously commented on how well his car 1000hp machine is running now. Essa had great follow run and an equally as good lead run, even after running over and crushing his front bumper, dragging it all the way to the end of the run and moving on to the finals.
The other half of the finals would be decided between Fredric Aasbo and Vaughn Gittin Jr. Aasbo was able to gap Gittin Jr. quite a bit on Aasbo’s lead run, very uncharacteristic of the normally aggressive Gittin Jr. Fredric Aasbo’s proximity during his chase run is what made the difference, keeping up against Gittin Jr. during almost the entire run. Near the end of the run Aasbo was door-to-door, complete opposite of Gittin Jr.’s chase run. Aasbo would move on to the finals against Michael Essa, one-step closer to a repeat victory in Orlando.
The finals showed how well Fredric Aasbo has developed a winning-formula at Orlando, with a definitive leading run after Essa has a slight hiccup coming off the banks and into the center transition. Michael Essa’s smoke would not prove to be too much for Aasbo, with Fredric having a wonderful chase run with basically no mistakes. This would solidify the finals and allow Fredric Aasbo to move on to his second-straight Formula Drift victory at Orlando. Michael Essa would take second place and Dai Yoshihara would place third for the weekend.
The other victory for those attending Formula Drift Round 2 in Orlando were the lack of controversy and the shake-up of the Championship Points (with James Dean taken out so early and Dai Yoshihara/Michael Essa hitting the podium). Fredric Aasbo has now jumped James Deane for the Championship Points lead, Ryan Tuerck sits in third, and Essa, Gittin Jr., Kearney, and Heilbrunn are not far behind through seventh-place.
Round 3 – Road to the Championship, takes place in Atlanta, Georgia on May 12-13, 2017. Head over to Road Atlanta or tune into the live stream to catch all of the action and continue to see how this season’s story continues to develop.
Words and Photography by Dave Bell.