This is shaping up to be a pretty interesting season, complete with intense battles, big swings in the standings, and fans angry at what they perceive as bad judging. The root of the weirdness is the new qualifying format and its tendency to create important battles early on in the competition. Those battles result in good drivers getting poor results. The new judging criteria for determining zeros is source of misunderstanding among fans, as seemingly small mistakes on an otherwise stellar run can cause a driver to lose. It’s also confusing to the fans when both drivers make mistakes and the battle is judged only by which driver had the advantage on the other run.
Formula D’s tandem bracket is arranged the same way any standard tournament bracket is. It’s not just that the top qualifier goes against the bottom qualifier, 2nd goes against 31st, 3rd against 30th, and so on. The order of the battles matters too. If there are no upsets, the first and second qualifiers will meet in the final battle. Study the bracket closely at you will see the logic behind it. Again, if there are no upsets, once the bottom 16 drivers are eliminated, the 1st qualifier will battle the lowest driver who’s left, and that’s the 16th qualifier. After that he will battle the 8th qualifier and so on. Likewise, the two middle drivers always battle each other: 16 vs 17, then 8 vs 9, and 4 vs 5. Mathematically speaking, driver x will battle driver y-x+1, where y is the total number of drivers remaining.
The qualifying order is supposed to rank skill or ability from greatest to least, so it makes sense that the best driver is first and the second best driver is second. Wouldn’t it also make sense that they finish in that order? If the bracket was arranged any differently, so they meet sooner than the final battle, that result can’t happen. What if the two best ranked college basketball teams played each other in the second round of the playoffs? The losing team wouldn’t be very happy about going out so early, that’s for sure. And that is why the bracket is the way it is.
2013 ushered in a new qualifying format for Formula D, where the top 16 drivers after the first run are locked in and the remaining drivers make a second run to try to get the remaining 16 positions. The weird thing that happens is that many second-run drivers often get scores that are higher than drivers that got locked in on the first run. For example, at this round Robbie Nishida made some mistakes on his first run and scored a 46.4. He didn’t make it in the top 16, so he ran again and on his second run he scored an 88.4. That was the highest score out of all the two-run drivers and would have put him in 2nd overall with the old qualifying format.
The new qualifying format put Nishida in 17th, and he battled the 16th qualifier, Chris Ward, in the Top 32. Ward’s score would have put him 26th with the old format. So what looked like 16th vs 17th on the surface was really a 2nd vs 26th battle. Instead of a close battle between two middle-of-the-road drivers, it was a blowout. The bracket’s design is pointless if the competitors are inserted out of order.
One of the more controversial battles in the Top 32 at Palm Beach was between Conrad Grunewald and Darren McNamara. Grunewald qualified 10th and D-Mac was 23rd, but Grunewald had scored a 79.6 and D-Mac had a 78.8. D-Mac’s score would have put him at 11th, just one spot behind Grunewald, in the old format. In the standard bracket 10th and 11th can’t meet in battle until the Final Four. In effect we saw an epic double-OMT Final Four battle in the Top 32, and D-Mac, who finished 2nd in Atlanta and was 5th in points going into this round, got knocked out way too early in this competition.
The other side of the coin is that when two top drivers meet that early, that means the lower-ranked drivers they would have normally gone against will instead battle each other, and that means that drivers who might not ordinarily make it out of the Top 32 are getting to see Top 16 battles more frequently. Some people are saying the new qualifying format is evening the playing field, but is it really?
Aren’t the good drivers supposed to go further by earning the privilege of having easier battles early on? Some fans complain that the same few guys keep winning, but shouldn’t they win if they’re the best? If two good drivers meet in the Top 32, one of them is going to be disappointed. The very best drivers will most likely still be winning and the worst will still be losing, but the season will be full of apprehension for everyone in the middle. Drivers who are consistently ranked fairly high in the standings could find themselves struggling to stay in the top 16 solely due to the new qualifying format.
Daijiro Yoshihara started off the season with a perfect Long Beach finish, and a lot of people expected him to dominate the 2013 season. In the Top 32 in Atlanta he came around the first turn with his wheels straight and lost the battle to Conrad Grunewald, sending him plummeting down in the standings. Surely expecting redemption in Palm Beach, he beat Danny George but then took himself out in the Top 16 against Matt Field. Despite these blows to his lead, he climbed back up to 6th place in points and is still a contender for the championship.
Another issue and cause for concern is zero-point runs. Last season we lacked clarity on things like running over cones and clipping points, which allowed Daigo Saito to win battles that he appeared to have lost. I’m all for having objective ways to identify the winner of a battle, so I commend Formula D for making their list of the types of mistakes that will result in a zero.
The problem now is that when both drivers make those kinds of mistakes, fans will argue about the degree of zero. When Matt Field battled Daigo Saito, the run when Field led was a zero for both drivers. Field took out a few off-course markers, but Saito took out more markers, did it earlier, and went further out of bounds when he did it. The fans see that Saito made a way bigger mistake. However, according to the Formula D rules, both drivers simply earned zeros, the run was considered a wash, and the judges chose a winner based on the other run.
The judges take a lot of flak for calls like that, but they’re just going by the rulebook. Should the rules allow for a “Degree of Zero?” Maybe that would keep the judges calls more in line with what the fans actually see happening on the track. Sometimes the lack of a “Degree of Zero” will result in One More Time battles when fans and teams will have thought there was a clear winner, simply because his zero-resulting-mistakes weren’t as big as the other driver’s zero-resulting-mistakes.
What’s going on with Vaughn Gittin, Jr? His performance in Long Beach was business as usual: fairly clean, no-nonsense runs, but nothing particularly noteworthy. But in Atlanta his follow run against Fredric Aasbø caused quite a commotion. Aasbø admitted he initiated early to be safe in the wet conditions and Gittin admitted that he was caught off guard, and the resulting monster truck collision was just the latest manifestation of “if it ain’t rubbin’ it aint’ racin.’” Gittin hit Saito later in Atlanta, hard enough to break both of his left wheels. Gittin appeared to now be playing dirty, causing an uproar among fans, who started speculating that the Monster driver was trying to force One More Times or get rid of his opponents in ways other than good old fashioned drifting.
That trend continued in Palm Beach, with Gittin tangling with Conrad Grunewald in the Top 16, causing two One More Times before Grunewald finally ran wide and allowed a legal pass. Gittin’s battle with Fredric Aasbø was relatively clean, but then as Gittin chased Daigo Saito in the Final Four, he nosed the Mustang right into the SC430′s door, causing Saito to bail off the course before sustaining too much damage. Saito’s car required fairly extensive trackside repairs and the crew even brought out a welder to fix some rear end parts. Gittin’s car was too damaged to continue, so he conceded that battle and then called for a Competition Time Out for the Consolation Battle with Robbie Nishida. The CTO ran out and Nishida defaulted into third place.
You can’t really blame fans who are disgusted by the whole thing. To a lot of people, Gittin has been getting too reckless with his follow runs. Is he just trying to be aggressive and stay close the way Saito does? Or is he intentionally causing mayhem? I don’t know why he’d think he has to play dirty. He’s a good driver with a championship under his belt to prove it. Either way, the FD rulebook doesn’t differentiate between intentional and incidental contact, so who knows?
And then there’s Michael Essa, who seems to be doing everything right this season. After a ho-hum performance in Long Beach with his new E46, he stunned everyone with his incredible display of consistent precision at Super Drift Battle. He carried that momentum to Atlanta, taking out Hosford, Grunewald, and Powers, and finishing fourth after losing to D-Mac in the Final Four and Gittin in the Consolation.
I think a lot of people in Palm Beach thought they were in dreamland as Essa plowed through the competition. He qualified low at 21st (though he would have been 8th under the old format), then beat Taka Aono, Tyler McQuarrie, Chris Forsberg, Robbie Nishida, and finally Daigo Saito. To be fair, Aono seemed to be having car problems, and Forsberg made a mistake on his lead run, forcing a do-or-die super-aggressive follow run that backfired, but his other three battles were won fair and square.
In the final battle, Saito led first. Essa allowed somewhat of a gap before the initiation, though he caught up to SC before the transition. Saito tried his usual trick of slowing down to choke up the chase driver and then pulling away again with his massive power. It didn’t work though, and Essa was right back on his door at the first inner clip. Essa showed his chase skill as he backed off early to allow Saito to make the next transition, and he pushed the BMW ahead before Saito had a chance to open another gap. They were only a few feet apart as they passed the last inner clip and the crowd went wild.
When Saito chased Essa in the second run, he reverted to his 2012 driving style and ran shallow of both outer zones in order to maintain proximity. It looked like he was trying to pass Essa at the second zone; he dove in with barely any angle and couldn’t make it past before Essa came out of the zone toward the first inner clip, forcing Saito to back off. He dove in close again before the second clip, again having to back off to avoid contact. All the while, Essa ran a fantastic qualifying line. The judges made their decision fast and unanimous, and Michael Essa earned his first podium finish and first victory.
Essa’s performances in Atlanta and Palm Beach have propelled him into third place in the standings, with Gittin falling back to 2nd again and Saito surging into the lead.
With Nate Hamilton failing to qualify, Brandon Wicknick jumped to the lead of the Rookie of the Year race, though a crash in practice that ruptured his fuel cell ended his weekend early.
What are your thoughts on the new qualifying format and its effect on the tandem battles? Is it more fair, evening the playing field? Or are its results too random and chaotic?
Photos by Ayala & Bohan
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