Fredric Aasbø and the Papadakis Racing team have left me no choice but to fall in love with drifting all over again.
We’ve already said it, but this was a story that couldn’t have been written. If, and only if, two conditions were met in Irwindale could Aasbø just sneak by to become the 2018 Formula Drift champion. The first condition was that he needed to win outright at Irwindale, something certainly not outside the realm of possibility, especially seeing as how the Papadakis Racing Corolla took two wins and five podiums earlier in 2018. The second is that James Deane would need to get knocked out no later than the Great 8. This is the bit that seemed impossible, even on its own.
For both of these things to happen simultaneously was definitely a bit of a stretch. Aasbø said he wasn’t really going into the weekend with hopes of a championship fight and yet a battle for the championship was exactly what he got.
Over, and over, and over.
After qualifying was through, Aasbø was in a good position to make a stab at the title. As much as he was fighting for himself, his chances hinged on everyone driving against Deane as well.
With both drivers earning bye runs in the Top 32, there wasn’t really much action to talk about from Aasbø’s perspective. In terms of the title fight, the most notable battle for Aasbø was Jhonnattan Castro beating Justin Pawlak, as Castro would face off against Aasbø next.
There would certainly be no team orders between the two Papadakis Racing prepared vehicles.
Enter the Top 16, which Aasbø later told me would be his toughest battle of the weekend. Against his good friend Castro, if Aasbø made even the smallest mistake it would mean the end of his weekend and championship hopes.
Castro pulled out all the stops with an amazing lead run, but it just wasn’t quite enough. With a unanimous vote in favor of the yellow Papadakis car, Aasbø moved on.
This was the battle that would really set things into motion with regards the battle for the championship. You’ll know the result of this battle, but I’ll let Jordan tell you what happened behind the scenes at Worthouse before, during and after this battle.
But if this photo is any indication there’s a good chance he’s busy laughing at memes instead of writing.
From this moment onwards, each battle for Aasbø would come with loads of pressure as the championship hinged on every gear change and flick of the wheel. From the outside of a car, drifting is a sport of inches and feet, but inside the cockpit it comes down to a matter of millimeters.
Winning fight after fight, Aasbø found himself up against Vaughn Gittin Jr. for what would be one of the most intense battles of Formula Drift I’ve ever seen.
Each battle that happened on Saturday built up to this moment.
Heading into the final battle — the literal title fight — I found myself intensely excited for what was about to unfold. Sure, I’ve always had a preference here or there, but after spending the majority of my time this weekend watching the Papadakis team working (really hard) behind the scenes I felt like I had a much stronger stake in what was happening.
I’d never had this much of an emotional investment in the outcome of a round and, as much love as I have for Deane and the Worthouse crew, I wanted Aasbø to pull this off so badly. Everyone was one their toes.
With both cars ready to rock, Aasbø lead Gittin Jr. into turn one for what would be the first of several battles.
Aasbø took an aggressive high line, with Gittin Jr. close behind but lower on the bank. Once past the the first inside clip and onto the in-field, Gittin Jr. cosied right up onto Aasbø’s door and stayed there until across the line. On the reverse run, Aasbø couldn’t match Gittin Jr’s chase run, but Gittin Jr. couldn’t match Aasbø’s lead run.
This initial battle was too close to call, and the judged agreed by unanimously calling for a ‘One More Time’ battle.
The two lined up for the second time, neither seeming to waver in the slightest. Setting up for another corner I only really saw the two taking on the second half, but watching the replays it again could have gone either way.
My heart was with Aasbø but with the judges all voting their own ways — Ryan with the Norwegian Hammer, Andy with the Professional Fun-Haver, and Brian calling for a OMT. It meant one more One More Time battle.
It seemed the judges were under a lot pressure to really make a call here, instead waiting for a clear mistake or mechanical failure to decide the championship for them. In the judges’ defense, both drivers were on the absolute limit. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen driving like this, with both adjusting to the other as the leader rode the walls around Irwindale.
With a season’s worth of work riding on this battle, the intensity in the hot pits was running high. But as Aasbø pulled in he looked as cool and focused as ever, ready for his third battle with the big-bodied Mustang.
As the pair took off into the night, I found myself absolutely glued to the action. It wasn’t until they rounded the last corner on what would, finally, be the last battle of the night that it occurred to me that I should, you know, get some photos…
I fired away as the Mustang smushed itself into the wall and powered through it, the back end folding under the load. Aasbø followed, but without a similar large overhang (read: cushion) on the back end of the Corolla, the car bounced back and straightened out while losing angle and proximity.
Up until this moment, it looked like Aasbø would finally take the round and the championship, but this was the clear mistake the judges were waiting for.
This was it. The season was over.
After confirmation of Gittin Jr.’s win, it was time for podium celebrations and parting words to mark the end of the 2018 season.
Still, the night itself was far from over as celebrations got underway around the paddock. In Aasbø’s own words, it might seem that “drifting is about being on people’s doors and driving like a badass” but, really, “it’s about the people.”
Everywhere you looked this was readily apparent.
Of course, missing the championship by four points, it was a bittersweet night for Papadakis Racing.
Stephan Papadakis expressed that they were “basically holding it”, but in reality the championship wasn’t lost last Saturday at Irwindale; it was lost incrementally through the season where the team didn’t get the results they should have.
As crazy as this night was, “this is what racing is about. If you’re just doing this to win, you won’t be happy very often.”
In reality, without James Deane, the big trophy in the Worthouse camp would have been located across the paddock, next to the Rockstar trailer and sitting atop the insane Papadakis Racing Corolla.
Aasbø said the fact that the Papadakis camp was a bit disappointed by their result “speaks volumes” about the kind of team they are. Papadakis supplied him with a car that was “badass and [he] should have been on everyone’s door.”
But from showing up to Irwindale Speedway on Thursday with “no hopes of the championship” to having come within four points of taking down the Irish powerhouse, it was “one of the craziest experiences behind the wheel.”
“I want to be one of the best, and today I was one of the best,” he said, describing the final battle as “an extremely cool experience.” It was one, two, and finally three back-to-back battles with “one of the best ambassadors of the sport who has been fighting really hard. Seeing him on the podium makes me smile.”
Other drivers came to congratulate Aasbø on his driving, saying it was inspiring to watch him. The maximum amount of pressure was on, and not once did he flinch. But Aasbø simply replied that this is what they all live for; these battles were “pure driving.”
Beyond the driving, the door-banging, the wall-tapping, the spooling turbos, backfiring exhausts, and tire smoke, it’s just as Aasbø said: it is the people who make this sport what it really is.
Getting up close once again to all the micro-interactions you don’t see on the big screen, I’m simply humbled by the spirit of all the drivers in the paddock.
And, most of all, by Aasbø himself.
He drove this weekend like a true champion and everyone on the team gave 100 percent. They left nothing on the table and, like never before, I cannot wait to see what next year brings.
Can anyone say… A90 Supra? We can always hope, right?