One of the original highlights of my job as a photojournalist in Japan was covering the D1 Grand Prix from its initial seasons all the way through to my first years as a Speedhunter. But then I stopped. It was a combination of overseas media outlets losing interest in the format, as well as the events themselves becoming repetitive and so predictable that I lost interest too.
The questionable organization of the series didn’t help either, so I concentrated on covering other elements of Japan’s massive car culture. On the drifting side of things I quickly discovered it was far more fun to hit up grassroots events, and every once in a while I’d take a little trip back and revisit D1 and D1SL to see if anything had changed. But that was years ago, so I thought it was about time I took another look at how the pro championship that put drifting on the motorsport map has evolved.
I decided that Tsukuba would be the perfect round to attend, as it was the first pro circuit that I started fumbling around with shutter speed settings in an attempt to learn how to shoot drifters in the days before the series had even taken off. What I discovered was a very different place, an event that felt familiar but with enough change to make it all feel exciting again.
With Formula Drift in the US having really pushed the envelope in terms of what a pro drift car should be, it seems that D1GP has finally caught up. The 2018 cars are pretty serious machines.
In fact, this element alone has vastly changed what the action looks like.
Having seen this car halfway through its build late last year, it was great to finally watch it on track. It was touch and go for a while though.
That’s because Daigo’s new engine setup has called for the use of a rather tall intake plenum which forces the resulting hood bulge to surpass the 80mm limit stipulated by D1 regulations.
On the Saturday’s practice and qualifying that I attended, I caught him arguing with the officials over their initial call to not allow him to compete on the day. But whatever his angle was it must have worked as he was out with this beast ripping up Tsukuba’s tarmac.
The Corvette looks amazing in action; it’s nothing short of a wild animal that even the man himself has to sweat a bit to keep it under control. Then there’s the NASCAR soundtrack, which is a pretty fresh thing in Japan.
The driver line-up was peppered with familiar faces – drivers and personalities that brought a big buzz to the sport back in the day. There’s also plenty of new talent, guys that have fought their way up through the ranks and are now at the top of their game.
I was very happy to see Katsuhiro Ueo’s friendly face during the autograph session. Ueo is responsible for giving me one of my most memorable rides in his legendary AE86 back in the early 2000s at Sugo, a time when handling a car’s momentum was more important than outright power. That’s no longer the case in D1, it’s all about massive horsepower figures and Ueo too pilots a crazy VR-powered machine. But I’ll talk about that in another post on my favorite cars from the Tsukuba round.
Then there’s this guy, Ken Nomura, one of those recognizable JDM personalities that would be sorely missed if he ever left the sport. It was also great to see Nomuken back in an ER34 Skyline sedan, albeit now powered by a Toyota 2JZ. Traitor! Just joking, you do what you have to do in order to compete in the power war that pro drifting has become.
Every now and then I stop by the Car Make T&E shop in Yokohama, so I knew that Ueno was back in the Z30 chassis that he started his D1 career in. He’s still got a pretty crazy Lexus RC F shell waiting to be built though, so maybe we’ll see more of that in 2019.
One car you’re about to see a lot more of is this, the Do-Luck VR-powered 86. I followed a great deal of the build late last year and finally shot the completed and setup car last week. In fact, it’s partly because of Ito-san that I ended up checking out D1 this past weekend; I really wanted to shoot this thing in action as it’s one of the most violent tire destroyers I’ve ever seen.
And with great power comes the need for lots of grip. It’s crazy to see how all the cars are running sticky semi-slicks these days; they offer the control at the limit that these cars need and the grip when they need to accelerate full power out of a corner. Forward traction is the name of the game.
Because of this the tire changers were busy throughout the day.
The intense heat of the day meant that I took a far more relaxed pace as I reacquainted myself with a series I used to call home back in the day, noting the changes, chatting to even more familiar faces and attempting to understand the very different way in which the competition is judged.
Removing The Human Element
Which brings us to the layout of Tsukuba for this round, one that put a massive grin on my face. While years back it was only the infield part of the track that was used, this time around drivers were asked to initiate at the start/finish line on the main straight, which meant having to pile on the speed as they exited the long sweeper at the end of the track. They’d then flick to the left before transitioning right at the pit wall and then lining up for Turn 1.
This three-motion drift (san-patsu) was a pleasure to watch; it takes full commitment from the drivers and is one hell of a way to start their runs. Masanori Kohashi of Team Orange didn’t hold back; his S15 runs a 6.7L stroked LS3 with a Vortech blower. Are SRs pretty much done in D1?
The link up into the first corner is visually pretty epic, the slight elevation change providing a nice backdrop of Tsukuba’s main straight.
From there on it’s pedal to the metal as the drivers unleash the power mid-corner to nail their angle before setting up for the exit. This is Pon at full chat with his 1,100hp GT-R-powered 86. Open up the picture in full-res and check out all the chunks of rubber being spat out.
Hibino’s 700hp 2JZ-swapped S2000 was, without a doubt, one of my top three favorite cars from this event. I have to say, the Honda looks far better this season than it did last year with the Gulf livery. It’s so cool to finally see new and different cars in D1.
Hibino and Kitashiba put on great shows out of Turn 1, both of their cars powered by 2JZs, the LS of Japan.
And then we get to the main judged section of the course, the infield with the S-curves connecting up to the hairpin where most of crowd were watching from.
The main difference of D1 these days is the lack of actual judges. They’ve pretty much removed the human element and replaced it with the ‘D1 Original Scoring System’, DOSS for short. It’s all based on a scoring system where the course is split up into a series of sections with each section being attributed a maximum number of points. The system relies on in-car telemetry via a Racelogic DriftBox to judge the car on things like entry speed, angle, speed of transition, and even angle smoothness. There are no clipping points anymore, which has really changed how D1 action looks.
The only human element is a marshal whose job is to deduct points for things like off-course dirt drops. Each driver is then graded and the points are instantly displayed on the digital screens.
I’m still not sure if this is the right thing for the sport, but it certainly makes sense as you are creating a fair judging platform for each driver. That said, there are other successful series out there that continue to rely on humans to make the calls, adding a more tangible element to the sport. It’s tough to say which is better; maybe a combination of the two could be a good in-between, but whatever your personal view is I have to say what I saw this past weekend is definitely a better, more exciting and fresher version of the D1 Grand Prix.
Dino Dalle Carbonare