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Welcome to the off season: part two

19 June 2015

You know when you start someone of an older generation on a rant and they just keep going and going like Abe Simpson? Well, that’s what happened off the back of letting ‘MGN’ loose on the Pro–Am field (you can see what he said here); guess we should have known that the guy who has been the voice of D1NZ for the past five years was always going to have something to say. Every now and then he comes up with something insightful, so we thought we’d let him keep going to cover the Pro field, which we’ve broken into three parts for you (30–15, 14–6, 5–1). Disclaimer, the following is the view of MGN and not NZPC or D1NZ. 

Now, over to MGN: 

When 2015 is discussed by future generations of drift faithfuls, it may well be viewed as the season that bought about change. D1NZ is looking to understand and position itself and its drivers for the future, and evolve a sport, which at times can appear, at best, confusing and, at its worst, simply impossible to follow. Most would agree that this season has been solid without being the best ever, and that is for a variety of reasons, which would take more than the space I have here to cover. There are currently several proposals being discussed — these will be announced formally in July; so for now I’ll simply flag change without specifics as there are none confirmed as yet. 

With a failed attempt at retirement seeing me miss round one of the series, I didn’t get to see first-hand how the opening round played out and, to be fair, round two was also viewed from a limited vantage point after a failed attempt at start-line interviews. So, this is effectively me looking at four rounds, plus taking in other factors like video, social media, and the wonderful thing that is the drift grapevine. If you thought school girls were bad, add some energy drinks, bourbon, testosterone, and cars worth tens or hundreds of thousands and you get the idea. 

It has to be said that most of the guys in positions 30 down to 20 only did single or limited rounds. Those who didn’t either had ongoing mechanical issues, or perhaps need to review how suited they are to pro competition. In future, I see the crowd wanting a smarter, tighter show, and I know I’m not alone in having a desire to see a return to the top 16–only format, which will really limit the opportunity to develop if you are short on battle experience. With the stigma of Pro-Am removed, hopefully we’ll see choices being made that help the sport and the drivers themselves.

Joel Counter

Wisefab, LS engine, S14 … that’s a powerful and proven combo, and we only got to see Joel at his home event in Christchurch. He has a full campaign planned for 2015–’16 and the challenge will be to learn tracks that most Northern competitors have had hundreds of laps on. Joel seems up for the task, and he’d probably quite like to not have to constantly battle his Achilles Radial teammates. Crew Chief Napoleon Counter will no doubt become a new source of colourful language in the spotters area and will try and win the post-event social festivities. 

Ben Belcher 
Ben is caught in a tough spot, largely privately funded and with some clear driving talent (who remembers his hill-climb videos) but just not getting the seat time to really threaten the top drivers. He loves his home events at Tauranga and puts on a massive show, but going forward he will probably be one to look at running in a control class if it eventuates. 

Sky Zhao
Plenty of speculation as to what happened with Sky, who appeared to be the angriest man on the face of the earth if you watched some of his early season chase runs. Sky spent a lot of time in China and Japan and came back a man intent on driving through the door of any car leading him in battle. His skills had clearly improved, but it didn’t really gel with what the judges were looking for, and I’d imagine he probably felt some frustration leading to him calling his campaign early and focusing on other opportunities.

Aden Omnet
As with fellow Tauranga-based driver Ben Belcher, Aden is caught a little in-between classes, and didn’t really recapture the form he showed last season at Tauranga. In a sport separated by small margins of error, you have to be almost at one with your car and I’m not sure that Aden is quite there, as he’s played around with a few tuning options and set-ups. If I were Aden and his team, I’d be thinking about the potentially restructured classes as a positive, which could see more competition battle time on the offer for an experienced driver. 

Michael Prosenik
‘The Proz’ had it tough, and it was best summed up by Gaz Whiter doing a session in his car and saying, “F**k that thing is fast … but it handles like sh*t, how are you not dead?” The 536kW supercharged LS is a rocket ship, but it became one that had a mind of its own. After missing the season start, and having issue after issue causing frustration, the dedicated team packed the car up and sent it back to Australia for a full rebuild. This is a guy who’s had plenty of results in Australia, but must feel like there is a voodoo doll that looks like him drinking beer out of a shoe somewhere. 

Shane Van Gisbergen
There is no other way to put it other than to say SVG’s class and talent are immense, and there are probably 30 other guys glad that he isn’t doing full campaigns and adding the words ‘Drift King’ to his resume. There is no one in the field who can get close to just how precisely Van Gisbergen can chase, and it’s only due to the fact he hasn’t fully mastered leading battle strategy yet that he hasn’t won an event. I hope we get to see him back and on a platform that allows him to shine

Steven Sole 
‘Soletrain’ is of the old school, and it was nostalgic to see him back and doing what he loves before selling up his R32.4, pending the birth of his second and third child. He is definitely a guy I could see coming back to a revised format and doing well based on experience and battle craft. The Naki is a bit of a wonderland of special machinery, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him emerge in a season or two with another top-class weapon. 

Phil Sutherland
The ever-smiling big man from the South will be forever remembered for Mt Smart 2015, becoming just the second D1NZ competitor to roll a car in competition, and the first to have done so in the modern era of high-definition footage. He will have the car(s)  going forward to challenge the top echelon, and the only question mark will be how he keeps working 26 hours a day and drifting in the North when based out of Christchurch. There are few engine notes that can compare with Philthy’s 2J, on song through the final turn at Ruapuna. 

Brad Smith 
Like a few others before him, Brad returned to D1NZ Pro last season to find that the speed of progress has been huge, and he has never really looked 100-per-cent comfortable. A lack of competition seat time looks to be really hurting him, as you simply can’t replicate qualifying or battles at test days, and it is that ‘in the moment’ instant mechanical reaction that’s not quite showing. The team are doing something different with the supercharged 3.8-litre Nissan, which has pros and cons, as the distinct noise magnifies gear selection and throttle application traits, and when you don’t have a car that you can get an off-the-shelf set-up and formula for, that means a lot of trial and error in an environment where being one or two per cent off means you are on the trailer. He did have good moments at Mt Smart and Ruapuna, and I’d say he probably felt a bit hard done by, but it’s been another hard season for a team with big aspirations. Once this car package gets sorted, it will be hard to beat. 

Vincent Langhorn
The 2013–’14 Pro-Am champion really waited until the very last round to show us what he was capable of. Hurt by being in a Pro-Am car for a majority of the season, Langhorn has announced he will be focusing his energies, going forward, on more grass-roots style events. This is probably a good move for the quietly spoken young man who can skid a car, but isn’t so interested in the TV interviews and media that a full Pro campaign now seems to require. No one will forget his Pukekohe qualifying run in a hurry.

Matt Lauder
I had high hopes for Lauder’s season, with significant interest in his move to a 2JZ engine package, which was well documented. He just never quite got the car consistently sorted, and he is a driver who has expressed interest in moving to a more controlled format for future seasons. Lauder can pedal, but has often seemed to find his view at odds with the judges (that might be a family trait, Brad often felt the same).

Joe Kukutai
‘Smokin Joe’ is part of the future generation that are still learning the ropes of the sport. Undoubtedly one of the most aggressive in the field, that has at times been his downfall where the line chosen has been compromised by simply wanting to bang on the door of the lead car. There are a couple of schools of thought on that style of driving, and while it rates well with fans, until it starts being what judges asked for, it will generally result in early exits from competition. His big moment of the season was at Baypark where he had the whole crowd standing for his qualifying pass.

Gareth Grove
We might well have been looking at a much higher season placing for Grove if it hadn’t been for the other Gaz (Whiter) who got in the way a couple of times. On both occasions Whiter got the better of OMT calls made after Grove had really put the pressure on the defending champion, and in both cases looked like he was close to putting Whiter on the trailer. He elected not to go to round five in Christchurch, which saw him fall down the table a couple of places, but he has more than proven he belongs in Pro after graduating up with the 2014 class. His big moments were probably both against Whiter with fantastic chase runs.

Adam Hedges
The big question for me is how long can Hedges stay with the SR20 engine and fight the global trend. Getting third place at round one looked like it would set up a strong campaign, but it just looks like it’s hard work to keep the C’s Garage machine within reasonable distance of the torque monster V8s and high-horsepower six-cylinder turbos. Hedges can clearly drive, and loves the smaller tracks, where his nimble car package is best suited, but it’s always hard to swim against the current and he could be another who looks at the restricted series. His big moment would be his round one podium and season position, hurt by NDQ at Pukekohe.

Jodie Verhulst
I’m happy to eat my words, I’ve at times wondered if Jodie was fully ready to be in Pro due to some reserved battle performances in the past. That changed with her move to an LS chev V8 and what seemed like a trend of seeing her teammate and partner have on-track issues. She also seemed to find some sort of inner rage that resulted in the best driving we had seen from her to date. Her big moment was her chase run on Nico Reid at Mt Smart, and backed up with her Baypark performance at home. She was sitting in the top 10 for a big part of the season. The big question for ‘MSDRIF’ is how she finds that same aggression for every round of the season.

Kyle Jackways
He just can’t catch a break. The likeable Jackways’ season was summed up by the grand final, where his car simply refused to play ball and was dragged off the track prior to battles starting. Kyle was left with no option but to simply walk away in frustration. He will face a tough decision in the off season as his car will likely need a bit of investment to remain anywhere near competitive, and I’d say it is likely that he too may look at a restricted series. When you go to Christchurch and end up with a windscreen being smashed by tools falling off the car in front of you in a battle … you just have to shake your head.

Tom Marshall
The older of the Marshall boys announced his arrival in Pro with a huge chase run at round one, and from there the boys both looked pretty solid as they found their feet in the series. At a guess, the brothers will both feel that they got some harsh calls against them over the season and that will be part of the learning experience. ‘Fanga Dan’ has taken on a bit of a mentoring role with his fellow Northlanders, and the big question might simply be ‘which of the boys makes the Pro podium first’. A new chassis purchase is a clear signal of intention, and having a family member to constantly practice and test against will help. 

To be continued with 14–6 …