On Tuesday 8th October 2013 the return of the world’s fastest Motorsport series was announced at a news conference at the Putrajaya Maritime Centre, Malaysia. After a hiatus of 3 years due to safety changes and reorganisation, the Red Bull Air Race returned to the skies at the end of February with the largest of the seven Emirates, Abu Dhabi, hosting the 2014 championships opener. Jamie Ewan was there for AeroResource as the 12 masters and 6 challengers went head to head for the first points of the season.

The Red Bull Air Race

Conceived in 2001 to challenge the ability of the world’s best pilots, the Red Bull Air Race series was established in 2003 by Austrian drinks giant Red Bull as a series of internationally hosted races. Flying through a specially designed course of ‘air gates’, the races are not only designed for speed but to also challenge the pilot’s skill and precision.

The air gates, or pylons as they are also referred, were developed in 2002 during the conceptual stages of the series and were tested by the godfather of series, Hungarian Peter Besenyi. Designed by Martin Jehart of Bellutti Protection Systems, the inflatable Air Gates serve two fundamental purposes – they instantly break apart on contact without impacting the pilot or plane and also remain stationary in all weather conditions. The design also allows the gates to be repaired and re-inflated in no time at all in the event of a pylon strike. The record for the setup of a replacement pylon stands at 1 minute 30 seconds, set in 2007 by the course personnel who are nicknamed ‘Air Gators’. Over the past 10 years the pylons design has been adapted leading to the current design and material used. The work has included tests with 30 different materials and fabrics each being assessed for their suitability as pylons since introduction in 2003.

After two years of planning and development work, the first official Red Bull Air Race took place during 2003 in Zeltweg, Austria with a second stage taking place near Budapest, Hungary the same year culminating in Hungarian Peter Besenyi taking the first ever Red Bull Air Race Title. With three stages flown in 2004 (Kirby Chambliss of the US took the title), the race became known as the RBAR World Series in 2005. The race involved 10 pilots from all over the world taking part in the seven stages for the title, which was won by Mike Mangold of the US who took five out of seven wins. As the number of pilots and stages increased, the sport has built up a staggering following around the world with millions captivated by the exciting and dynamic action. The 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 series were won by Kirby Chambliss (US), Mike Mangold (US), Hannes Arch (Austria) and the UK’s own Paul Bon-homme (both 2009 and 2010). With the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons cancelled to allow for the restructure and safety improvements, the racing returns this year with a twist.

2014 Series

Returning to the skies with 12 masters and 6 challengers, the 2014 series is set to be held over eight stages, covering seven countries, over three continents. With defending World Champion Paul Bonhomme among the 12 pilots returning to the series, there have been a number of technical changes made, including a standard engine and propeller for all aircraft across the series. Further changes are to the lightweight nylon material used in the air gates making it easier for them to burst apart in the event of a pylon strike, as well as raising the height of the pylons that the pilots pass through from 20 to 25 metres. Along with the technical improvements, the rules and modus have been tightened to prevent the racers from breaking the limits set by the Race Director Jim DiMatteo and his team. One major difference with 2014’s stages is the removal of the Quadro from the tracks due to the extremely high G forces it exerted on both the pilots and the aircraft.

The Challenger Cup is a second competition category in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. The pilots in the Challenger Cup will compete in simplified or adapted tracks in an Extra E-330LX as provided by the Red Bull Air Race throughout the Championships. In most cases the racing rules that apply to the Master Class pilots will also apply to the Challenger Cup pilots. With two aims – to give promising pilots the chance to develop their low-altitude flying skills under racing conditions and help enhance the overall safety of the series – the Challenger Cup will give a new generation of talented pilots from around the world the chance to experience the thrills of the sport in a slightly less pressure-packed environment as well as gain the valuable experience they need by racing on some of the tracks across the season.

The eight Challenger Cup pilots from across the world – Tom Bennett of Great Britain, Mikael Brageot of France, Petr Kopfstein of the Czech Republic, Francois Le Vot of France, Peter Podlunsek of Slovenia, Daniel Ryfa of Sweden, Claudius Spiegel of Germany and Juan Velarde of Spain will also participate in several training camps throughout various stages of the championship and will use the time and experience gained to work towards acquiring the “Unrestricted Super Licence” that is required to fly in the Master class of the Red Bull Air Race. These pilots will have to fly a minimum of three races during the 2014 season (but are able to participate in more races if preferred), with an annual evaluation based upon the aggregate of the three best race points scored during the season. The top six pilots with the highest total scores will be invited to the final race of the season.

The 12 masters – reigning champion Paul Bonhomme of the United Kingdom, Hannes Arch of Austria, Kirby Chambliss of the US, Nigel Lamb of the United Kingdom, Matt Hall of Australia, Peter Besenyei of Hungary, Nicolas Ivanoff of France, Michael Goulian of the US, Matthias Dolderer of Germany, Yoshi Muroya of Japan, Pete McLeod of Canada and Martin Sonka of the Czech Republic use three types of aircraft between them. The Zivko Edge 540 in use with nine of the teams, the MXS-R in use with three of teams, and the Corvus Racer 540 in use with just one. All are equipped with the same race-tuned Lycoming Thunderbolt 300hp engine and a standardised Hartzell 3 bladed 7690 structural composite propeller nicknamed ‘The Claw’.

Although the engines are all rated at 300hp, it is thought that there could be some very small technical variations of up to 2 per cent caused by the virtually impossible task of fabricating engines that are exactly identical however these variations are so minimal they will not affect the race results in any way. With the entire field equal in terms of power, the racing will come down to flight characteristics of the individual aircraft types and, more importantly, the individual skill and talent of the pilots themselves.

This year’s race format follows a similar pattern to previous ones with the following sessions: Training, Qualifying (Including the Challenger Cup), Top 12, Super 8 and the Final 4 which determines the overall winner of the stage and all are flown with only one pilot on the track at a time.

Training for the stage takes place on the days preceding qualifying and the masters have two training days each consisting of two mandatory sessions. The time set during the final session determines the starting order for qualifying, with the first point of the stage being gained by the pilot who has the fastest qualifying time.

Qualifying takes place on the day before the race itself and also includes two mandatory sessions where the best time counts with the results of the session determining the order of racing for race day.

Race day is the busy period for the pilots with the Top 12, Super 8 and Final 4 all taking place. Completed in heats, the Top 12 takes the 6 fastest times and two fastest losing times forward to the Super 8 with the heat pairings based on the rankings gained during the q ualifying.

Comprising the six winners of the Top 12, plus the two fastest losers, Super 8 sees the racers going head to head against the clock to determine their ranking. The fastest four pilots in the Super 8 head to the Final 4 and results in the Super 8 also determine 5th to 8th place race positions.

The four fastest pilots from the Super 8 the pilots again go up against the clock for 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place race positions and the all-important World Championship points in the Final 4 round. Points are allocated based on the following system: 1st: 12, 2nd: 9, 3rd: 7, 4th: 5, 5th: 4, 6th: 3, 7th: 2, 8th: 1 and 9th – 12th: 0. At the end of the series the pilot who has the highest aggregate score over the season is crowned the Red Bull Air Race World Champion.

The Challenger Cup pilots have two training sessions two days before race day, one of which is compulsory, and one training session on qualifying day and the Challenger Cup races take place on qualifying day after the training session. Pilots complete two laps, with only the best time counting for the final ranking. Challenger Cup points are awarded after each race and, like the m asters, decide the winner at the end of the season. The points system is as follows: 1st: 10, 2nd: 8, 3rd: 6, 4th: 4, 5th: 2 and 6th: 0.

28/02/14 – Abu Dhabi

Australia’s Matt Hall and Austria’s Hannes Arch were pleased to top the unofficial time sheets for Friday morning’s two training sessions ahead of the afternoon qualifying session in Abu Dhabi, both commenting that although the track over the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf might look deceptively easy it is nevertheless full of surprises.

Qualifying underway and the sleek, nimble lines of a bright red Zveko Edge 540 passed through the start/finish line, or Breitling time gate as it is also known, before spiralling skywards in the hands of Canadian Pete Mcleod. Mcleod, at 30 is the youngest pilot in the series, set a blistering time of 57.93 seconds during his run taking the number one spot edging out reigning world champion Paul Bonhomme by just 0.19 seconds and, by qualifying fastest, the Canadian gained the first point of the season.

The Canadian flew a blistering time after changing his approach to the course due to a dramatic shift in the wind. Starting from the south in the morning during practice, the wind took a change to the north in the afternoon, a situation for which the area is infamous. Five pilots flying the course after McLeod struck the tops of the pylons, sending the tips of the pressurised air gates soaring into the sky keeping the Air Gators on their feet.

With Britain’s Nigel Lamb taking third in his BreItling adorned MSX-R, fourth place went to Austrias Hannes Arch who was the first to take out a pylon during the session. After hitting the pylon he flew a more conservative second run to ensure he posted a time. Amongst the pilots who were caught out by the pylons were Germany’s Matthias Dolderer, two-time World Champion Kirby Chambliss and Yoshi Muroya of Japan.

In previous years it was seen that a few of the racers would hold back slightly during qualifying but now all teams fly with a standardised engine the results saw eight pilots within three-quarters of a second of each other.

In the Challenger Cup race, French pilot Francois Le Vot was named winner of the inaugural event after edging past Daniel Ryfa of Sweden by just 1/100th of a second.

Official timing results from Qualifying in Abu Dhabi

Position Pilot Time
1 Pete McLeod (CAN) 0:57.932
2 Paul Bonhomme (GBR) 0:58.129
3 Nigel Lamb (GBR) 0:58.308
4 Hannes Arch (AUT) 0:58.353
5 Matt Hall (AUS) 0:58.713
6 Martin Sonka (CZE) 0:58.929
7 Nicolas Ivanoff (FRA) 0:58.989
8 Kirby Chambliss (USA) 0:59.699
9 Yoshi Muroya (JPN) 0:59.858
10 Matthias Dolderer (GER) 0:59.904 (including +1 sec penalty)
11 Michael Goulian (USA) 1:00.362
12 Peter Besenyei (HUN) 1:02.163

Race Day
01/03/14 – Abu Dhabi

After a spectacular three-way battle for the first victory of the new season, the bright blue skies over Abu Dhabi welcomed reigning world champion Paul Bonhomme to the number one spot in front of 100,000 spectators along the turquoise waters of the Gulf.

The Brit finished ahead of his world championship rival and old race nemesis from Austria, Hannes Arch, who flew into in second with Canada’s Pete McLeod placing third and a career first podium. Bonhomme blasted through the track in a staggering 56.439 seconds, almost two seconds faster than his penultimate run with Arch just a blink of the eye behind with a time of 56.776 – just 0.337 splitting the rivals.

With all 12 of the masters competing for a place in the Super 8, most of the field flew fast and clean through the racetrack, making it safely into the next stage. Sadly the two American pilots Kirby Chambliss and Mike Goulian didn’t make it with Kirby picking up a penalty and Goulian not getting airborne due to an engine problem. On pulling out, Goulian said: “It’s the safe thing to do, and you’re not going to win with a sick airplane anyway. We’ll be back for the next one.”

3 Pilots – Paul Bonhomme, Nigel Lamb and Hannes Arch, who briefly set a new course record of 56.869, came out quickest in the Top 12 to begin with but Australian Matt Hall had other ideas and flew an unbelievable session in the Super 8 knocking Championship contender Nigel Lamb out of the Final 4.

With McLeod beating Archs stunning time of 56.710, and another new course record set for a brief moment, it appeared champion Bonhomme had fallen behind his Canadian and Austrian rivals.

In a nail biting final it was Bonhomme who kept his cool, setting yet another course record and racking up his 14th career win.

Overall Abu Dhabi Results: 

Position Pilot Time
1 Paul Bonhomme (GBR) 0:56.439
2 Hannes Arch (AUT) 0:56.776
3 Pete McLeod (CAN) 0:57.057
4 Matt Hall (AUS) 0:49.426 (DNF)
5 Nigel Lamb (GBR)
6 Matthias Dolderer (GER)
7 Martin Sonka (CZE)
8 Nicolas Ivanoff (FRA)
9 Yoshihide Muroya (JPN)
10 Peter Besenyei (HUN)
11 Kirby Chambliss (USA)
12 Michael Goulian (USA)


Croatia and beyond

The next round takes part at the enchanting and historic coastal town of Rovinj in Croatia. The challenging racetrack in Rovinj will be set up along the north beach close to the old town and will feature tight turns with plenty of high Gs expected.

The Adriatic Coast is subject to the Bura wind, a gusty and tempestuous phenomenon that has the potential to wreak havoc – if the winds show up on race day, race conditions could be marginal.

RBAR fans in the UK will have to wait until August 16th & 17th to get their chance to see man and machine performing in perfect unison against the clock. Ascot race course in Berkshire is the venue for the UK leg of the tour and it promises to be a spectacular day out.

Tickets for the event are selling fast, early bird prices (until 25 April) for adults are £30, and £25 for children. Car parking is extra at £10 per vehicle. For more information head to the official Red Bull Air Race or Ascot websites.

For an in-cockpit perspective of what its like to fly the 2014 Abu Dhabi course, check out the following on board footage from Hannes Arch during a training flight © Hannes Arch/Youtube