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British Drift Championship - Round 1: Teesside

Smokey stars as BDC 2019 gets under way at Teesside

A dramatic start to the new drift season sees Team Japspeed walk away with silverware - but drivers Paul Smith and Matt Denham don't have it all their own way. Read the full story below...

Images: Everything Drift & Kyle Molyneux

It was all change for Round 1 of the 2019 British Drift Championship. Wanting to make his mark, new BDC owner Matt Stevenson elected to run the Teeside Autodrome circuit in reverse. Minor revisions to the event schedule also served to spice up the action and revitalise the series.

Team Japspeed boasted two entries in Round 1’s Pro class: Paul ‘Smokey’ Smith in his 1.5JZ-powered Toyota GT86, and Matt ‘Mr Nice Guy’ Denham in his Mazda RX-8, the sleek coupe featuring a brand new, 650bhp LS7 V8 engine and refreshed Japspeed livery for 2019. Smokey makes his debut in the Drift Masters European Championship next month, so BDC R1 was a great opportunity for him to regain a feel for his Toyota after the winter break.

Pro class drivers were given their first taste of the revised circuit layout on Saturday in Practice and, somewhat ironically given the popularity of the old Turn 1, it was the new Turn 1 giving people the biggest headache. What looked a straightforward, near 90-degree left-hander featured a very deep clipping point, which challenged drifters from the off. The unsighted exit for a snaking transition into Turn 2 made things even more tricky. Tyre barriers placed on the outer edge of the corner took a beating throughout the weekend, and it wasn’t long before bits of bodywork began piling up.

Another curve ball was delivered by Mother Nature, which saw fit to cover Teesside in grey cloud and sprinkle the track with rain on occasion. Mercifully however, Practice was dry and Team Japspeed drivers were allowed to dial into the new circuit layout with minimal distraction, both cars working well aside from a minor alternator issue on Denham’s car, and thundering around with smoking precision. Things were looking very good for Qualifying on Sunday.

Open Practice on Sunday morning turned into a fraught affair for Matt Denham. Just 15 minutes before Qualifying was due to start, his V8’s exhaust manifold melted the crank sensor wiring, causing it to short-circuit. The first the team knew anything about the issue, the engine simply wouldn’t turn over. Luckily, they managed to fix the problem with moments to spare and get both cars ready for battle. To say it was a close call is an understatement! Meanwhile, Smokey requested a tweak to his Toyota’s gear ratios late on in Practice, making them longer to ease the enormous challenge of Turn 1.

With two runs in Qualifying deciding who would battle who later in the day, Paul Smith wasted no time showing other competitors – and the sizeable crowd – that he meant business. An error in his first run earned him a score of 61.67, but his second run was far better and bagged him 83.67, which lined him up third and sent him straight through to the Top 16 battles.

Denham’s first Qualifying run was very solid, the Mazda looking undeniably awesome with its new design and ease with which it could smoke Maxxis tyres. The judges awarded a score of 53.00 and Mr Nice Guy was all set to better that in run 2. Sadly, it was all over by Turn 1 with the Mazda slithering wide onto the grass and half-spinning back onto the circuit, Denham carrying a little too much speed at the beginning of his run.

Denham’s first attempt meant he would make the Top 24 battles, but then disaster struck. Despite the team’s best efforts, it was game over for the Mazda. A bitter end to a promising start.

After lunch, fans were invited onto the circuit to meet the BDC drivers and take a closer look at the awesome machinery. The relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere was in stark contrast to just an hour later when the battles kicked off. In his Top 16 clash, Team Japspeed’s Smokey Smith lined up against Pro-Am graduate Martin Cowley in his S14 Nissan.

Smith led first and Cowley shadowed him until the final turn when Smith put his foot down and pulled a big gap. One-zero to the Japspeed driver. Run 2 and Smith’s class shone through, the GT86 never more than a yard or so away from the S14, the rivals separated by a fag packet as they crossed the line. Smith was through to the final eight.

Next up was Oliver Evans and his Strawberry face S14, this battle featuring the additional dynamic of Maxxis tyres versus Westlake tyres. Smith led first once more, and again had his rival close for company until the final turn when the Japspeed driver seemingly found another gear and drove away. Assuming the role of chaser in run 2, Smokey held his nerve and delivered another stellar performance, keeping Evans firmly in his side windows for the entire run. A shot at the top four awaited…

With barely time to breathe, Smith was back on the grid and door-to-door with Mike Walton’s S13. Run 1 was thrilling for its speed, both drivers really hanging it out on those clipping points. But for sheer drama it was nothing compared to Run 2, Walton losing the rear not once but twice, forcing Smokey to take evasive action on consecutive occasions. A tense few minutes followed, as judges established what exactly had gone down, before handing a place in the final to Team Japspeed.

Up against 2018 BDC round winner Aurimas Vaškelis, Smith had it all to do. Nothing was certain against the Lithuanian E46 BMW driver on the reverse Teesside circuit. Run 1 was simply extraordinary, Smith fighting tooth and nail to keep Vaškelis close as he ducked in and out of tyre smoke at key transition points. The cars crossed the line almost together and that set the scene for Run 2. That battle was even closer, with both drivers completely on the limit right from the first turn.

Who’d won? The judges couldn’t decide, so ‘One More Time’ was called - not that the crowd minded. So to the breach once again and Smith gave his all, the GT86 dancing on the tail of the BMW in Run 1, then leading the way in Run 2. Witnessing the skill on display from both drivers was worth every penny of the BDC admission ticket.

It was a mighty close call, but in front of the podium it was Vaškelis who received the nod, Team Japspeed’s Paul Smokey Smith earning a very well-deserved second place finish with Scott Cartledge taking the final step of the podium. Cheers and celebrations ensued, and handshakes were duly exchanged; it had been one mother of a battle between the drivers. What a fantastic way to tee up the next round of the British Drift Championship at Driftland on May 25-26. We hope to see you there.

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