Drift 101: How do drift competitions actually work?
OK, we get it – it's 2017, and the concept behind drifting is pretty much understood universally, right? When I say 'drifting' I mean the practice of sliding a rear-wheel-drive car through a corner, or series of corners. You can technically drift a four-wheel-drive car too, although this is more commonly regarded as power sliding.
Semantics aside, at some point or another you'll have seen it done, on TV, in films, on the interwebs and in photos.
But what about the frankly confusing sport of competitive drifting? From an outsider's perspective, it looks a bit like a motorsport, only it's not because there's no timing involved, and it doesn't matter who crosses the line first. Sometimes there's one car on track, at other times two, the drivers don't always take the racing line, and they scrape their rear bumpers, spoilers and exhausts along walls and railings in the name of… points? What the heck's going on?
First off, forget the idea of drifting being a motorsport, it isn't; it's more like an extreme sport, but in high-horsepower rear-wheel-drive cars. Competitive drifting today has more in common with freestyle motocross, or skateboarding, than traditional motorsports.
To alleviate any confusion, I went behind the scenes at the latest round of the British Drift Championship to give you an insight into how drifting is structured and scored. Read on…
Competitive drifting is a judged sport. Typically you'll find a panel of three or four judges whose job it is to score the competitor's performance across a number of criteria throughout qualifying and the main event. The exact format used varies from championship to championship.
The British (and Irish) Drift Championships are adjudicated by Head judge Kieran Hynes, British drifter Ryan Pothecary and ex-IDC pro driver Kevin O'Connell. The three judges are positioned in an observation tower, with a full view of the track. Any potential blind spots, or awkward angles are alleviated by the use of a camera system, which can be called upon for instant replays.
Any blind spots, or critical points on the track are covered by fixed-position cameras, used for instant replays
In the case of the BDC, the judges scores are relayed on to an administrator, who inputs them into the championship's scoring system. This information is then displayed in real-time for the livestream presenters who keep the viewers and crowd informed on the current standings.
Much like other forms of motorsport, every drift event features a qualification session – during this time its one car on the track at a time per run. However, rather than establish grid order, qualification is used to decide on which drivers make it through to the main show, and to arrange the head-to-head bracket.
During qualification, each driver will get two solo runs around the course, aiming to fulfil the judging criteria (see below). During the qualification stage, some series have each judge score the entire run, and then collate an average score of the three. In other championships, each judge is assigned a specific criteria to watch over the course of the run – for example, angle – and then the scores from each judge are added up at the end. Either way, this score is usually out of 100.
Throughout both qualifying and the battle stages of an event, the judges can be called upon to discuss their decisions and reasoning to the audience. This is often done where close calls or tricky decisions have been made, in order to add transparency to the rulings.
Again, this is an area that varies slightly from series to series around the world. Typically, there are four criteria that drift judges look for: line, angle, style, and speed.
Line refers to a pre-set path that the judges instruct the drivers to take throughout the course. This is punctuated by 'clipping points' or 'clipping zones' – these are markers, or marked areas, on the track which the drivers have to get as close to as possible.
The line illustrated at BDC round 2 at Teesside Autodrome. The boxes marked 'C1-C6' are the clipping points
Rear clipping zones are positioned on the outside of the track and have to be approached with the rear of the car, and front clipping zones on the inside of the track, met with the front of the car. This line will often vary from a traditional racing line, and is chosen to offer the drivers the ideal drift line through the course, whilst testing their car control and ability to position the car accurately. The chosen line is also usually conducive to good tandem drifting later in the competition.
Angle, quite simply, is the slip angle of the car in relation to the direction of travel. The more, the better. When monitoring drift angle, the judges will be watching for excessive steering input, moments of understeer and smooth transitions from one direction to another, with minimal corrections.
Style doesn't refer to the car, but rather the driving finesse – smooth drifting, aggressive pace and high commitment are rewarded
Style is possibly the most subjective of the criteria. The judges are looking for a positive initiation into the first drift, fluid transitions with minimal steering or angle corrections throughout the course, full commitment when accelerating through the course or approaching walls and clipping points, and a strong pace throughout the circuit. Plenty of tyre smoke and noise helps, too.
Speed is one of the more objective criteria, and is usually measured by way of a speed trap at the initiation into the first corner. Speed can also be monitored by eye, subjectively, by the judges throughout the course.
In the BDC, drivers are awarded +0.25 extra points for each mile per hour over the target speed at initiation, and docked -0.25 points for each mile per hour under the target. The target speed is decided during practice, and is an average of all drivers' runs up to that point.
Drivers are also deducted points during qualifying for momentary loss of drift, dropping between one and three wheels off the circuit, or taking the wrong line. It's also possible to score an outright zero for the run if the driver stops drifting completely, spins, comes to a stop, takes all four wheels off-track or crashes and cannot complete the run.
Also known as tandem, twin drift or tsuisō (Japanese for 'chasing race') this is a drift competition's main event. In many series, drivers are paired off based on qualifying position – for example, the top qualifying driver will battle 32nd place, second place will face 31st place and so on. Where less than 32 drivers qualified, the top qualifiers will often receive a bye into the next round of battles.
The battle stage of a drift competition requires two drivers to go head-to-head to determine a winner
The British and Irish Drift Championships differ slightly – only 24 drivers qualify for the main event. The top eight qualifying drivers get a bye past the first round, in order to encourage more exciting qualifying runs. This means that the next 16 drivers have to battle it out for the remaining eight places in the Top 16.
This bracket system continues until there are 16, eight, four and then two competitors remaining. The winner of the final battle is the event winner. Third place is either decided with a battle (in the case of the BDC) or by qualifying order between the two semi-final losers (in other series, such as Formula DRIFT).
The lead car has to drive the qualifying line, while the chase car has to stick as close as possible
In each battle, each driver takes one turn at leading and one turn at chasing. If a winner cannot be decided after two runs, the judges can vote for a 'one more time', whereby the competitors run another pair of lead/chase runs to determine a winner. In the British and Irish Drift Championships, a 'one more run' format is used instead, whereby the higher qualifying driver gets to chose whether to lead or chase, and only one run is used to decide.
During the twin battles, the judging system is simplified. The lead driver must follow the qualifying line as if they were on track alone. The chase driver's job is to use the lead car as a moving clipping point, following the lead car's line and angle as closely as possible.
Advantage can be gained by one driver having more speed, angle, style or a better line through the course, however underhanded tricks such as the lead car slowing down too much to put the chase car off, or the chase car impeding the lead car's line, are heavily penalised by the judges.
Light contact is often permitted, unless it's deemed to have put the other driver off-course, or adjusted their line. When a collision or impact occurs, the judges will review the run again to determine fault, and the run will be scored accordingly.
The judges' job during the battle stage is to pick a winner. In the BDC, the judges must award ten points between the two drivers – for example, 7-3, 6-4, 5-5 and so forth. The winner is the driver with the most points after the two battles. In other championships, such as Formula DRIFT, each judge can either vote for a driver, or a 'one more time' after both runs. The majority vote wins.
Five-minute rule and tyre changing
These rules also vary slightly between series. If a driver is unable to begin a battle, they can call a 'five-minute rule' whereby they have just five minutes to fix the problem and return to the track. In some championships, again like BDC and IDC, you are only allowed one five-minute rule per event and doing so docks you a championship point. If damage or mechanical fault arises when two cars collide during the battles, leniency is often shown towards the driver not at fault, and they may be either given longer to fix their car, or aren't punished in the points department.
Teams must make one pair of rear tyres last per battle. It sounds easy, but it often means compromising power or aggression
In most series now, drivers must compete at least two battles on a single pair of rear tyres. In Formula DRIFT, competitors can change tyres if a 'one more time' is called, however in BDC and IDC you have to use the same pair again, regardless of condition. This rule is in place to help cap power levels, and to maintain the fluidity of the show without constant stoppages for tyre changing.
And that's all there is to it!
So now you're up to speed on how competitive drifting works. The next time you watch one of our regular livestreams here on DRIVETRIBE you'll be able to follow the proceedings perfectly, minus the confused look!
Photography by Jordan Butters