x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A fast and furious drifting initiation

I am strapped into the passenger seat of a 450hp, 2.5-litre Subaru Impreza enjoying (or enduring) a session of drifting with Team Orange at the Barbican Turbo event.

Team Orange at the Barbican Turbo event.
Team Orange at the Barbican Turbo event.

Half way through my ride in a bright orange, heavily-modified Subaru Impreza GDB and my right foot is rooted to the floor of the car's stripped-out cabin, trying in vain to stop the Subaru with an imaginary brake pedal. I am strapped into the passenger seat of a 450hp, 2.5-litre Impreza enjoying (or enduring) a session of drifting with Team Orange at the Barbican Turbo event.

Next to me, in the driver's seat, is Kazuhiro Tanaka, a 38-year-old drifter from Ibaraki, Japan. He is a 20-year veteran of the sport, I am a 20-minute novice. What I know about drifting could be written on the back of a postage stamp, which is roughly the size of the makeshift track set up at in a courtyard outside the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC). My editor set me this assignment in midweek and I'm starting to think this is some kind of practical joke or, perhaps, he doesn't like me. Or maybe both.

Tanaka is busy pumping the handbrake as he performs a well-versed routine of doughnuts, drift turns, something extraordinary called "the flower" and, later, the "head to head". His "set list" is taped to the car's stripped-out dashboard. The word "Cool!" is scribbled next to one of the items on the list. If we could understand each other I'd find out why, although I am sure the answer would trouble me.

There is a formidable language barrier between us, so conversation is perfunctory. Tanaka's English extends to "hello", and, obviously, "cool!". My Japanese reaches little further than "mushi-mushi" (hello) and the word "sayonara" (goodbye), which I have deemed inappropriate for use at present, as he throws the car into another smoking doughnut. Maybe I will toss Tanaka an "arigatou" (thank you) later if I get out of this unscathed.

The tyres squeal and the engine roars as Tanaka pushes the Impreza into another turn. The smell in the cabin is becoming a little disturbing though, a heady mix of my sweat and the burnt rubber of another set of shredded tyres. Then, as we race into another corner, I realise Tanaka is pointing his finger at an object outside the car. I steal a glance through the passenger seat window and there, not six inches away from me, is the bonnet of a second orange Impreza. Clearly, this must be the "head to head" part of the demonstration.

Behind the wheel of the other car is Nobushige Kumakubo, another of Team Orange's accomplished drivers. We are lapping the tiny circuit in the style of a high speed pursuit, one car tagging the other. If you didn't know what was going on, you'd think these two fellows were suffering from a severe bout of road rage.  The Imprezas are only travelling at 60 kph, but in an area this small it feels supremely fast. The experience is akin to being sat in the middle of a real-life version of Gran Turismo.

I am deeply impressed by Tanaka's control of the car as the Impreza screeches and twitches its way around the tight confines of the ADNEC tarmac. But then I should be. Both he and his compatriot Kumakubo compete for Team Orange in the D1 Grand Prix series in Japan. Kumakubo won the championship in 2006, while Tanaka, one of the founding members of the race series, is highly regarded by both his fellow drivers and fans.

The whole point of the sport is to apply enough power to the rear wheels to allow the car to slide or drift around corners. Competitive drifting is judged on execution, style and speed. Finally, Tanaka pulls the car to a halt and accepts the warm applause of the 500-strong crowd who have gathered to watch the Team Orange demonstration. "Sleepy" Hiroki Furuse, the Team Orange manager, watches me breathlessly struggle out of the Impreza's heavily-modified cabin, and smiles.

He's called "Sleepy" because when he first moved to the United Kingdom - where these cars are maintained - he could not speak any English, and the business of learning a new language made him very tired. I give him an approving thumbs-up. Despite my midsession misgivings, the whole experience was very enjoyable. "Sleepy" tells me the cars will need a new set of rear tyres after completing two of these exhibition runs. At Dh700 a tyre and five outings a day, the team would be shredding money were it not for the support of a healthy roster of sponsors. As we chat, a team of mechanics are working on both Imprezas and appear to be pouring water over their half-cooked engines as they prepare the cars for another crowd-pleasing turn.

He also tells me it's costly to convert the cars into drifters. The transformation from all-wheel to rear-wheel drive, which lets the car drift, as well as modifications to the engine and cabin, costs around Dh220,000 for exhibition cars such as these, and even more for race cars. The team are currently modifying four Mitsubishi Evo IXs for next season's D1 Grand Prix series. "Sleepy" expects each Evo to cost Dh820,000 to prepare for racing.

Tanaka and Kumakubo, meanwhile, are busy handing out signed photographs to a new set of fans, so I decide it's time to drift away from the fast and the furious for a quiet sit down. Sayonara, Tanaka-san and arigatou. nmarch@thenational.ae