2013 Formula Drift Irwindale: Daigo Saito Wins the Battle, but Michael Essa Wins the War

Daigo Saito Formula D Irwindale 2013

The Formula Drift season finale – traditionally held at “The House of Drift,” which is more widely known as Irwindale Speedway – is preceded by a plethora of fascinating storylines year in and year out. That’s hardly a surprise, considering how it tends to be the championship-deciding round, and how a win on this tarmac dance floor perched among the gravel pits can serve as a delicious dessert to a less-than-palatable campaign, and give the victor some needed momentum to carry through the long off-season. But this trend really manifested itself in the 2013 edition of the Irwindale round, held this past weekend.

For starters, Formula Drift would be crowning its first car manufacturer and tire manufacturer champions in this, the series’ 10th season. However, most eyes were fixed squarely upon points leader and SoCal local boy Michael Essa, and with good reason: Wheeling a self-built, largely-self-funded (through his shop, GSR Autosport) 2005 BMW M3 E46, Essa is a goldfish swimming in a school of great whites (i.e. former champions and other superstars in factory-backed, heavily-sponsored machinery). Calling him an underdog would be about as accurate a descriptor as any. But you wouldn’t know it by the results he’s posted this season, having come out on top at Palm Beach and Texas.

Michael Essa Formula Drift Irwindale 2013

And Essa (above) certainly did himself a big favor by earning top seed in qualifying at Irwindale. What’s more, the guy closest to him in the points, Chris Forsberg, wound up eighth on the score sheet, meaning there was a possibility that the two title rivals would square off for all the marbles in the Great 8. Of course, there were would-be-spoilers like Justin Pawlak, Dai Yoshihara and reigning champ Daigo Saito on that side of the ladder, too.

However, the qualifying order quickly became a moot point for Essa: Although he triumphed over Luke Pakula in the first heat, he lunched his BMW’s turbocharged straight-six in the process. Thus, the points leader would have to spend the rest of the evening as a spectator, meaning his fate was in his competitors’ hands. Worse still, Forsberg (below) and Saito eliminated Yoshihara and Pawlak, respectively, in their Round of 32 battles.

Chris Forsberg Formula Drift Irwindale 2013

Ah, but that bad news for Essa quickly turned into good news, for Forsberg and Saito would be meeting in the Great 8 match (Forsberg defeated Aurimas Bakchis in the Round of 16, while Saito advanced due to Essa being unable to answer the bell.). If the 2012 champion and his Achilles Tire Lexus SC430 could beat the 2009 title winner and his NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z, Essa would become the 2013 champion.

That’s exactly what happened, and Saito went on to knock out compatriot Robbie Nishida in the Final 4 on his way to the final. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ladder, Tyler McQuarrie blitzed through Taka Aono, Patrick Goodin, Fredric Aasbo and Forrest Wang on his march to the final battle. Wang vanquished Nishida in the consolation round, giving himself and his Get Nuts Laboratory Nissan 240SX the final spot on the podium. As for the final, McQuarrie and the Mobil 1/GoPro Chevrolet Camaro put up a good fight, but Saito partially made up for his unsuccessful title defense by taking top honors. But even though Saito came up short in the drivers’ standings, he did lead Lexus to the inaugural Formula D car manufacturers’ crown, and Hankook took home the first tire-maker title.

Michael Essa Formula Drift BMW M3 E46

If you ask us, though, all those winners take a back seat to Essa. Not only is he the first driver to win America’s premier drifting championship with a European car, and one of the first champions to have extensive experience in both drifting and racing, but he’s one of the first champions to not have an OEM providing technical and/or marketing support, or a blue chip non-automaker sponsor to allow him to hire an army of mechanics (Stan Williams and Nick Richards are his only two full-time crew members.) or buy fancy tools like a shock dyno or a five-axis CNC mill. This wasn’t a bare-bones effort, per se, but it wasn’t one that had access to the kind of resources that the big guns did, either.

Instead, it was the result of Michael Essa’s technical savvy, determination and ability to rally people around achieving a common goal, as well as his obvious aptitude for driving sideways. In many ways, Michael Essa and his 2013 Formula Drift campaign remind us of the late Alan Kulwicki and his successful push for the 1992 NASCAR Cup championship. Hmmm, maybe Hooters (Kulwicki’s sponsor that year) would be interested in sponsoring Michael’s team. His Bimmer is already orange-and-white, you know…

Formula DRIFT Professional Championship Presented by GoPro 2013 Final Standings After Seven Rounds
1. Essa, Michael GSR Autosport / Yokohama BMW M3 555.50 Points
2. Forsberg, Chris NOS Energy Drink / Hankook Nissan 370Z 538 Points
3. Saito, Daigo Achilles Tire / Bridges Racing Lexus SC430 510.50 Points
4. Aasbo, Fredric Hankook Tire Scion Racing tC 487.50 Points
5. Gittin Jr., Vaughn Monster Energy / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR 481.00 Points
6. Pawlak, Justin Falken Tire Ford Mustang 425.00 Points
7. Field, Matt CX Racing / Maxxis / Blacktrax Nissan 240SX 407 Points
8. McNamara, Darren Falken Tire Nissan S14 388.50 Points
9. Nishida, Robbie Bridges Racing / Achilles Tire Lexus SC300 387.25 Points
10. Bakchis, Aurimas Nexen Tire Nissan S14 379 Points
11. Yoshihara, Daijiro Discount Tire / Falken Tire Nissan S13 333.50 Points
12. Grunewald, Conrad Hankook Tire / Megan Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS 309.50 Points
13. DeNofa, Chelsea BC Racing BMW 3 Series 291.00 Points
13. Tuerck, Ryan Team Retaks / Maxxis Scion Racing FR-S 291.00 Points
15. McQuarrie, Tyler Mobil 1 / GoPro Chevrolet Camaro 290.50 Points
16. Powers, Matt Fatlace / Nitto Tire Nissan 240SX 282.00 Points

Round 7: Final Fight Event Results
1. Saito, Daigo Achilles Tire / Bridges Racing Lexus SC430 First Place
2. McQuarrie, Tyler Mobil 1 / GoPro Chevrolet Camaro Second Place
3. Wang, Forrest Get Nuts Lab / Achilles Nissan 240SX Third Place

Manufacturers Championship Final Standings After Seven Rounds
1. Lexus 975.50 Points
2. Nissan 912.50 Points
3. Ford 906.00 Points
4. Scion 866.50 Points
5. BMW 846.00 Points

Tire Final Championship Standings After Seven Rounds
1. Hankook 1053.50 Points
2. Falken 1008 Points
3. Achilles 973.25 Points
4. Nitto 834.50 Points
5. Yokohama 788 Points