The 2018 Formula Drift Black Magic Pro Championship marks its halfway point this weekend at Wall Stadium Speedway in New Jersey, as The Gauntlet marks the fourth of eight rounds on the series calendar. Present in all but one championship season since 2005 (the track was closed for 2008), it’s seen many of the sport’s most iconic and important figures within its confines. Vaughn Gittin Jr. took his most recent victory here in 2016, while Fredric Aasbo was the last driver to go back-to-back here in 2014 and 2015.
Aasbo enters this year’s edition of The Gauntlet as the championship leader, holding a 37-point advantage over Chris Forsberg coming into the weekend. But with three different drivers winning the first three rounds of the season, this season’s driver roster is stacked enough that some of the sport’s top teams may go winless in 2018. With all that in mind, here are four competitors to keep an eye on when the action starts with Friday qualifying:
Finally! After debuting in FD in 2015 and earning four total podiums in 2016 and 2017, Latvia’s finest took his first career series victory in Atlanta from fifth in the bracket. Taking down Kevin Lawrence and Forrest Wang in the first two rounds, Bluss then had to defeat James Deane in the Round of 8, Piotr Wiecek in the semifinals, and points leader Aasbo in the final. For his efforts, Bluss skyrocketed to a top-five spot in the championship, within shouting distance of Deane in third and Wiecek in fourth.
Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis
Last year’s defending winner, Bakchis enters the fourth round of the championship hanging onto the edge of the top 10 in the standings. He’s won at least one battle in each event so far this year, with his best performance coming in Orlando; there, he beat Lawrence and Matt Field before falling to James Deane for a semifinal bid. The Lithuanian, who placed third in last year’s standings, has ranked in the top five overall in each of the last four years, making this weekend crucial to continuing that streak.
Runner-up to Bakchis in this event in 2017, Essa could really use a return to last year’s form right about now. Unfortunately, while he was able to equal last year’s Round of 16 appearances at both Long Beach and Atlanta, he fell short of duplicating his runner-up finish at Orlando 2017 when he lost to Matt Vankirk in the first round of this year’s event. Mired at 15th in the championship, 34 points outside of the top 10, it’ll take a big weekend for the 2013 series champion to start climbing back up the point standings.
The defending series champion, Deane’s worst round of last year came at Wall Stadium Speedway, where he fell to Bluss in the Round of 8. While the Irish driver has yet to win in 2018, he’s opened the season close to last year’s championship form with two runner-up qualifying performances and two semifinal appearances. But he gave up 33 points to Aasbo in Atlanta, slipping to 52 points behind the leader and falling to third place in the standings behind Orlando winner Forsberg. How will he rebound?