James Deane on the significance of FIA involvement in drifting
Drifting has long been looked down upon by ‘traditional’ motorsport, but in a world of dwindling spectator numbers and reducing grids across racing, the sport is flourishing and pulling large crowds around the globe.
To the FIA’s credit, it has begun to welcome the sport into the wider motorsport family, with the introduction of the FIA Intercontinental Drifting Cup, held in 2019 at the Tokyo Tsukuba Circuit. As a further step, in March this year the organization approved the first set of regulations for drifting vehicles, with the intent of both formalizing safety regulations and harmonizing standards across different series.
As FIA technical director Gilles Simon explained when the regulations were approved, “Drifting is unlike most other motorsports and it requires a unique approach. We have attempted to keep all the elements that make the sport exciting and engaging for drivers and fans alike, such as engine configuration and power output, which will both be left open for the competitors to determine. Instead we have contributed our expertise where it is most required, improving the safety of the cars by instilling FIA standards throughout.”
But how does drifting falling under the remit of the FIA affect the way racers build their cars and the structure of competition? PMW speaks to James Deane, who has achieved multiple championship wins in the leading global formulae such as Formula D and the Drift Masters European Championship. As well as being an accomplished driver, Deane is also heavily involved in the construction and running of his cars, providing a broad perspective on the evolution of the sport.
How has the process worked in terms of moving over to being an FIA sanctioned series? What does that mean for you, for example, in how you approach car builds?
The FIA has been slowly coming into the sport for a few years and we were pretty much following all existing FIA regs on safety. There is no significant adjustment for pro-level guys in terms of the cars and combinations. The rules are still being refined, and there is still a lot of discussions going on.
So, you are building to the FIA regs anyway, even if they were not necessarily required in the past?
Exactly. The rule books have been quite strict. Many drift competitions focus on safety. I compete in Drift Masters and Formula Drift, and they’re still running under their own rule books. The FIA are watching closely and watch the events, but they haven’t attempted to control those championships as of yet.
It is only the FIA International Drifting Cup which, so far, runs once a year, that has full FIA regulation. They are accepting the cars that are coming from other pro-level championships. They are accepting the build quality of those cars.
How has the process been conducted between the FIA and the established drift community?
The FIA has been very open-minded so far. They have been speaking to many pro-level drivers as they want as many top-level drivers from around the world competing at their event as possible. They have been very open-minded about cars and the development that has been in place before they got involved.
With the process of the way a drift competition runs, they are quite happy to work with different championships and not just come in and turn everything upside down and say, “This is the way it is now”.
Can you give a brief overview of the sort of technical regulations in place across series?
When it comes to the roll cages, they are pretty much FIA spec, the same with the seat harnesses – we are running HANS devices and we run solid door bars in case of a side-impact crash. That is especially important when there are two cars on track going that close together sideways.
With all the safety equipment like fire extinguishers – everything is FIA spec. The safety aspect has always been excellent – well before the FIA came into place. All sanctioning bodies need to have their insurance and need to make sure that if there is an accident, everyone is as safe as possible. I think we have been fortunate that there has been no significant adjustment in that case.
Are there any series-specific rules on what you can do in terms of vehicle modification?
When it comes to the cars themselves, they are nothing insane. Well, they are quite insane, but they are not space frame and so on. We are using the OEM chassis rails and the floor panel, the cars are just modified. Everything between the front and rear cross member on the floor pan and chassis remains OEM.
There are limitations. For example, as we are drifting, you need a lot of steering angle. The rules dictate that you must use the OEM suspension design so you cannot change a Macpherson strut setup to a double-wishbone structure. It needs to be as it was from the factory. You can modify everything that bolts onto the chassis, such as the suspension arms themselves.
A lot of the time, to get so much steering angle you need to make your lower control arm a lot wider. When you do this, it is going to increase the camber crazy amounts but compensating for this, we push out the top of the MacPherson shock and the strut.
You can do this to a certain degree under the rules. For example, if a Nissan has three bolts on top of the coil-over to keep it in place, you’re allowed to move the center of the shock within that radius of the three bolts – you cannot go any wider than that point. Even with those rules in place, most of the cars have 60° of steering angle.
In terms of engines, we can run absolutely anything – any power, turbocharged, supercharged, nitrous etc. You might have a combination of all the above. They do ask us not to modify the firewall – so do not sink your engine in under the dash and keep it somewhat in the original location.
When it comes to the rear suspension, this is where a lot of development happens. Most people think that drifting requires as little grip as possible, and the easier it is for the back to slide, the better.
It is quite the opposite in competition because we are competing against another driver. When you are leading against your opponent, you want to be as fast as possible while being as sideways as possible. As such, we need a lot of grip. The tires, the suspension and the geometry all contribute, so there is a lot of development in this area.
The same applies when you are chasing somebody. Here you are trying to be as close as possible while trying to be up next to their door. You need grip and a good setup for that. With the rear suspension, you can move the points where they bolt onto the subframe about an inch or two. You can create any control arms you wish, but the chassis and subframes must remain close to OEM.
Is there a worry that FIA involvement in the sport will see it move away from the more grassroots level? For example, in the way that the World Rallycross Championship saw manufacturers drive out many privateers?
I think it is quite different. In drifting, a lot of countries have their national championship and things like that, but the grassroots side of it is enormous. I do not think the FIA will, or can, take control of everything everywhere. Most drift championships are still doing their own thing, and the FIA side of it has not taken off yet.
A lot of the top-level drivers are still happy competing in the championships they have been competing in. Like, for example, with Formula Drift in the USA, 20,000 people are coming to watch the events, there’s a lot of big teams and sponsors involved.
It is serious business over there and in Europe, especially in the last couple of years. Red Bull Media House have got involved, and they are covering the Drift Masters European Championships. That has been watched by millions of people online, and between 5,000 and 15,000 people are coming to the events. It is at a professional level.
What do you see as the main benefits of the FIA’s involvement?
So far, the FIA have focused their activities in Japan, but I think they need to come closer to a lot of drivers in the USA or Europe. Drifting started in Japan many years ago, but it has been taking off in other parts of the world since then.
The FIA has a lot of pull, and I know that some of the big dogs in the FIA are excited by drifting, and they love watching and learning about it. I think their involvement can open some doors, such as hosting some events in cool FIA tracks. Drifting has been a bit track-based and I think the FIA can help with getting it into some unique venues.
And obviously, it is cool for the competition to be recognized at the end of the year with the FIA gala and it makes it seem a bit more of official motorsport. In some people’s eyes, they do not understand it, or they have not seen it, or they have not given the time to learn what we are trying to do. It is just cool to see even the older generation being impressed by what we are doing. The FIA can help it in that case and showcase it to more hardcore race fans and things like that.