After qualifying was over and the Top 32 bracket was filled out, everyone realized how incredibly stacked it was. In the first quadrant of the bracket, there were three champions (Saito, Forsberg, and Yoshihara) and the current points leader (Essa). That’s half of the drivers in that quadrant. But in the same quadrant was also the 2011 Rookie of the Year (Bakchis) and a veteran driver who has been on the podium several times (Pawlak). Gittin was the only other champion at the event and he was in the third quadrant. Aasbø was the only other Rookie of the Year and he was in the fourth quadrant.
As the number one qualifier, Michael Essa was at the line first, ready to battle rookie Luke Pakula. Pakula didn’t even drift the big bank but Essa completed his run flawlessly. As Essa pulled back into the grid it seemed like his car was having problems.
The hood was popped and things were inspected. Essa thought a stretched valve was causing the engine to be low on power. In the meantime Pakula pulled up to the start line, ready for his lead run. Essa called a Competition Time Out so Pakula headed back to his pit so the next battle could take place during Essa’s time out. Things didn’t look good for the points leader.
Daigo Saito and Justin Pawlak met in the Final Battle at Irwindale last season and, as in that battle, Saito came out on top.
Dai Yoshihara was Forsberg’s first obstacle, but he got past him without issue.
At this point, Fredric Aasbø and Vaughn Gittin, Jr. were out of the running for the championship, but the still had a shot at the season podium if they could stay ahead of Saito and each other. Gittin took out Carl Rydquist and Aasbo beat Conrad Grunewald.
As the sun set over Los Angeles, Pakula declared that his transmission was broken and he was conceding the battle to Essa, causing a storm of controversy. If Essa got the 54 points for making it to the Top 16, Chris Forsberg would have to make it to the Final Battle in order to win the championship. But if Essa only got the 24 Top 32 points, Forsberg would only have to get to the Top 8.
Needless to say, Forsberg’s team had a lot riding on the outcome of this battle, so they protested the action and accused Pakula of throwing the battle on purpose so his buddy Essa could win the championship. Formula D heard the protest but held that Essa would move on to the Top 16. Now it was up to Forsberg to be at the top of his game.
By the time the Top 16 came around, Essa’s car was still broken and the driver introductions went on without him.
With Essa’s car out of the competition, Saito got a bye run into the Top 8.
Forsberg moved past Odi Bakchis and waited for the rest of the Top 16 to finish so he could get back to work and face Daigo Saito in one of the most important battles of the season. If Pakula hadn’t forfeited his Top 32 battle with Essa, Forsberg would have already been champion at this point.
On the other side of the bracket, Gittin moved past Ryan Kado and Aasbø edged out Ryan Tuerck.
And then Forsberg and Saito squared off. If Saito won, Forsberg wouldn’t be able to earn the points to move past Essa in the Championship. If Forsberg won, he’d then only have to beat Dean Kearney or Robbie Nishida, depending on which one of them won the next battle, and he’d have his second Championship.
Essa came back down to the grid to watch the action. I asked him if he was nervous watching this battle and he said, “No, not really, since I can’t do anything about it.”
Everyone had their eyes glued to the Jumbotron, waiting on the outcome of the battle. Saito won and Michael Essa became the 2013 Formula Drift Champion. He overcame incredible odds as a privateer and proved that budget isn’t everything. He’s also the first non-DA American to win the title since Tanner Foust got it in 2008. When asked how he felt about it, he said, “Of course I’m happy I won, but I’m sad it’s like this. I’d rather be out there.”
But wait! With all the excitement of crowning a new Champion, we can’t forget that someone still needed to win this round. Robbie Nishida beat Dean Kearney and joined Saito in the Final Four, while Forrest Wang and Tyler McQuarrie took care of Gittin and Aasbø respectively.
Nishida and Wang lost their battles and faced each other in the Consolation, where Nishida crashed out and Wang earned his first podium finish.
After a very rough year, Tyler McQuarrie finally had a stellar performance only to fall victim to the wall behind Saito in the Final Battle. It was his first podium finish since he won at Irwindale two years ago in the Falken Z33.
Remember when I said there were three champions in the first quadrant? Make that four champions.
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Photos by Bohan, Ayala, Delaney, and David Karey