Revenge of the Nerd – Power Wars

Revenge of the Nerd – Power Wars

by Mike Kojima

It’s been quite a while since I had the time to write my supposedly “monthly” column. Since we started MotoIQ In 2010 it’s been a wild ride which has taken us around the world and on all sorts of adventures. I have been super busy working as well.  My normal day job here at MotoIQ is a pretty full time gig but I also do engineering consulting for several key OEM and aftermarket clients as well as several private motorsports ventures.  Perhaps my biggest outside of MotoIQ job is doing chassis engineering for Falken Motorsports’ Formula D team.

A lot of motorsports enthusiasts who don’t understand what it takes to compete at the top levels of drifting tend to look down on it but let me tell you that a typical pro drift car is just as sophisticated as any unibody based race car built, including the high levels of touring car racing and rally.  Setting up drift cars is more difficult and less intuitive than any form of motorsport that I have participated in.

One of the biggest controversies to grip the sport lately is the loosely defined term, “power wars”.  In drifting, the cars have been getting bigger, more complicated, heavier and much more powerful as the sport progresses.  The new drift fan or the casual drift fan loves these tech based cars with their spectacular high angle tire smoking antics.  However the traditional drift purist hates them.

About seven short years ago, your typical pro drift car was an AE86 , or a Nissan S chassis, something like Taka Aono’s car shown here.  Back then Taka had a high revving Formula Atlantic 4AG in his car that probably made at the most 200 whp. If you had a SR20DET with 450 whp, that was just amazing.  Tanner Foust was holding down with a 500 or so hp turbo VQ35DE.  This was the era of Initial D and the traditional JDM Fanboi drift fan. I thought drifting was stupid and did my work with road racing and time attack cars.

About 5 years ago I accidentally somehow started to work with Falken on their Formula D team and was quickly humbled by how the sport had progressed and how difficult it was to get the cars to hook up and work right.  I was also impressed with how good the drivers were.  I think guys like Ian Stewart of ASD and myself were somewhat responsible for launching the suspension revolution to where drifters started to pay a lot of attention to chassis set up and overall handling.  About this time the V8 revolution also started.  Horsepower requirements started to climb as we all learned more and more about how to get the cars to hook up while fully sideways.

Instead of building highly stressed turbo 4 and 6 cylinders, someone actually weighed some of the newer generation domestic pushrod V8 engines like the Chevy LS and found that they were nearly the same weight as many turbocharged 4 cylinders of equivalent power. The V8’s could make the power with much less stress, more durability, less cost, greater simplicity and with a nice wide powerband and a lot of torque to boot. Team owners loved the American V8’s and traditional drift fans hated them.

Around this time we had a modified Chevy LS2 crate motor in Dai Yoshihara’s Team Falken S13 which made about 440 whp.  We were vastly underpowered to many other cars but we were in contention to win a championship in 2010 with this setup, mostly due to our car having a huge handling advantage over the field.

In 2011 Formula D came up with a sliding scale of tire size to weight in an effort to slow the cars down and contain costs.  We ran a 265mm tire at 2800 lbs that year which seemed to be a sweet spot.  At this point cars stated to get heavier and power requirements started to go up due to the new rules.

That year we ran a more sophisticated LS7 based 7 liter engine making about 540 to the wheels.  This was run of the mill power for the time and we were probably the lowest powered of the top 5-6 cars.  However we still  had a good handling advantage despite rules to limit what we could do with suspension geometry.  I felt these rules were aimed at us because were were one of the few teams to play with suspension geometry over the last few years.

I think that this was perhaps the most balanced package that we have yet to run and if rules were designed to freeze the cars at around this point, all would be great in the sport.  With 540 hp we barely managed to win a championship that year.  Some cars were beginning to push well over 650 whp at this point.

The next year through a lot of testing we determined that it was better to run a bigger tire with more weight.  We ran a 295mm tire at 3100 lbs.  To move this weight around of course we needed more power.  We started to deviate from production engines and went to a race engine based on LS architecture making about 700 whp.  Other teams were pushing in the high 700’s as a lot of teams came to the same conclusion that a bigger tire and more weight was faster.  Car were rapidly becoming more complicated.

In 2012 Daigo Saito arrived in America and fired the first shot of the current power wars.  With his up to 1300 hp turbo nitrous 2JZ and the sticky Achilles tire, Daigo set the Formula D world on fire by winning Rookie of the Year and becoming the 2012 champion.  An amazing feat.  Daigo caused most of us to rethink what we were doing. We struggled all year to keep up with 700 hp.  Who would have thought that more than this power level would ever be needed?

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