Drift Masters European Championship – Round 1: Austria

Team Japspeed revs up for the European drift season

Paul Smith makes his debut in the DMEC and comes away with his head held high, following a strong qualification effort and exciting fight in Austria’s Top 32 showdown

Images: Jordan Butters & Kyle Molyneux

The first round of the Drift Masters European Championship 2019 had it all – thrills, spills, epic battles, and even some tan-inducing sunshine. Teams from across the continent descended on the sleepy town of Greinbach, located in eastern Austria, and made the pit area of the PS Racing Center their own for the weekend of May 18-19th.

For Team Japspeed, the 1,100-mile drive to Austria meant driver Paul Smokey Smith and crew members Roger, Tom and Rob left home on the Wednesday, but not before identifying and fixing a clutch issue on the team’s Toyota GT86. For that job, Xtreme Clutch supplied its new 230mm Twin-Plate system, and OBP Motorsport made up custom clutch lines at short notice and in double-quick time.

Billed as ‘the Champions League’ of drifting, DMEC has attracted 45 drivers for the 2019 campaign, which spans the months of May to September, with the finale held relatively close to home at Mondello Park in Ireland. It promises to be a drift season to remember.

Saturday arrived and, following a dauntingly in-depth driver’s briefing, teams were given their first taste of the Greinbach circuit at 9am. Turn 1 – a colossal left-hander shaped by a concrete wall on entry – looked mighty on the track guide, and in real life it was even more so, rewarding commitment and those cars generating enormous horsepower. By contrast, the circuit’s middle section was less gung-ho, comprising a 90-degree left into a hairpin right, and then an opening left-hand turn before a chicane.

By design, T1 doubled as the final corner following that fast right-left chicane. Right from the start of Practice, this section caused problems for even the most experienced drivers. The exit speed from the chicane created massive weight transfer and some drifters just couldn’t hold onto their machine while the pendulum effect was in full swing. Some spun out, others clipped the tyre barrier with a straying rear end, and some – like Smokey – kissed the concrete barrier.

Luckily, the GT86 could drive back to the pits under its own power. A swift wheel change and new rear suspension arm later, the car was back out for second Practice at 1pm. Smokey had learnt his lesson from the morning and was visibly more confident attacking the clipping points this time round. Remember that he’d never drifted at this track before.

Sadly, Paul only had two cracks of the whip before time was called on Practice. A huge accident at the chicane forced organisers to shift the finish line backwards in a bid to prevent any more harm coming to cars or drivers. It was the correct decision.

Streamed live across the world, the pressure ramps up for DMEC Qualifying. This year, organisers are working with Red Bull to boost the spectacle, meaning more hype, glossier graphics, super slow-motion cameras and even drone footage. It’s a great time to be competing in the Drift Masters European Championship, that’s for sure.

Qualifying kicked off at 3pm, and Smokey’s Toyota sported a fresh set of Maxxis rubber for the occasion. Taking the start line, all crew members could do now was watch and wait for the judges’ scores to come in. Only the top 32 drivers would make it through to Sunday’s battles, and every drifter would be scored out of 100 points for each of their two qualifying runs.

With green light set ablaze, Smokey lit up those shiny Maxxis tyres and fired into Turn 1 on opposite lock, concentrating on his line to ensure he hit the clipping point way, way out on the exit before tucking in for the next initiation zone. A score of 54 was a solid effort in this company, but nothing was secure, the call of the judges extremely difficult to predict.

Sensing an opportunity to cement his place in Sunday’s Top 32 battles, Paul Smith gave it one final push in his second quali run. The GT86 appeared more dialled into the twisting circuit than ever, but it was Smokey’s first run that was deemed superior. Thirty long minutes later, the results were in – Smokey had made the Top 32 battles by the skin of his pearly whites, qualifying in… 32nd place!

Such are the rules of Drift Masters – and many other drift series across the world – the top qualifier faces the lowest qualifier, which meant Smokey would line up against fellow GT86 drifter Jack Shanahan. The pair had gone head-to-head several times before, but never at this level and never in front of such a massive crowd, so the pressure was on.

Smokey chased first and remained within a few yards of his rival throughout the run, but Shanahan was even closer during his turn to chase. Smokey put on a rip-roaring show out front, hooking up a fine line around the Greinbach circuit, but the judges ultimately ruled in favour of Shanahan. The event was over for Team Japspeed, but what an experience.

Some two hours later, Round 1 of DMEC had its winner – Irishman Duane McKeever in his S13 180SX, with James Deane and Adam Zalewski rounding out the podium. Round 2 of Drift Masters takes place in Croix en Ternois, France on June 15-16th and Team Japspeed will be there, ready for the fight.