Once again the Red Bull Air Race championship returned to Ascot for Round 5 of the 2015 season. With British double champion Paul Bonhomme in the lead of the series, could he extend his lead in front of a home crowd? Adam Duffield reports for AeroResource.
The 2015 Red Bull Air Race season is visiting eight different locations and, with round 5 at Ascot signifying the start of the second half, there is still plenty to fly for in the remaining rounds. The previous rounds, covering the courses in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Chiba (Japan), Rovinj (Croatia) and Budapest (Hungary) have seen three familiar names rise to the top of the leaders table – Bonhomme, Hall and Arch. Paul Bonhomme took an early lead with wins in the first two races of the season whilst Matt Hall kept him honest taking two second place positions. However, Hannes Arch took the next two rounds whilst Bonhomme was knocked out in the Round of 8 in Rovinj and likewise with Hall in Budapest. Despite this, Paul Bonhomme entered Ascot 5 points clear of Matt Hall, with 12 points up for grabs for the fastest pilot on the day.
With Red Bull sponsoring a wide variety of sports and not just the air race, it’s not surprising that a number of their other interests were represented around the Ascot grounds. From Freestyle Motocross to Free Running, Trials Champion Dougie Lampkin to flatland BMX, there were plenty of ground attractions to entertain throughout the weekend. A number of air display acts also filled gaps in between the air race action including the Army Air Corps Apache (operating a single ship display rather than the usual twin ship), Royal Air Force Chinook and the Breitling Wing Walkers.
During all of the season’s previous races, the tracks have been over water and Ascot represented not only the first time flying over land in 2015 but also the only track where the take off leads directly to the starting gate – making it even more critical for the contestants to get a good start. From the 1st gate the path to the 2nd is obstructed by a large tree giving pilots a choice of flying above or around, before making a max 10g 180 degree turn back towards the start gate. The chicane formed Gate 4 where pilots reverse direction between each of the three pylons before heading on to Gate 5. Disappearing behind the tree line from the viewing area and along the fairway of Ascot Golf Course towards Gate 6 signals the start of the return leg of the course, with another max 10g turn before repeating the layout in reverse. Including the finish gate this meant 12 in total to skillfully navigate in a test of precision and control.
As a feeder series for pilots to step up to the Master classification, the Challenger Cup race takes place on the Saturday and Ascot saw six pilots battle it out for the honors. Unlike the varying aircraft that are used by those competing at Master level, all pilots within the Challenger Cup use the same aircraft, an Extra 330 LX, meaning that it is purely down to the pilots ability to navigate the course with precision and speed. Petr Kopfstein took to the course first and set the benchmark for all others to follow and, with just one racer left to run, he was still out in front. Swede Daniel Ryfa had won the previous two events and was targeting a 3rd in the last run of the day. The championship leader going into Ascot, his run was going well until Gate 10 where he failed to get ‘wings level’ and incurred a 2 second penalty and in doing so handed the win to Kopfstein. With Ryfa finishing 3rd, the Challenger Cup standings leave both him and Kopfstein level on points with all to race for in the remaining rounds.
The Masters Class racing on the Sunday is broken down into three separate rounds – the Round of 14, Round of 8 and Final 4. In the first two rounds, pilots are paired off in head to head races with the winner progressing forward and, in the case of the final slot for the Round of 8, the fastest looser also wins a place. The 4 winners of the second round then go on to a straight shootout for the all important win.
Qualifying on the Saturday sets the racing order for the first round and is a battle in its own right. With all 14 pilots having two runs over the course and only the best time counting, the running order is based upon the pilots current championship standing.
The first run was moderately uneventful to start, with Yoshihide Muroya setting the early pace. Smoke issues and a height penalty added 3 seconds to the time of Peter Besenyei whilst Matthius Dolderer also picked up a penalty for incorrect level – as did Pete McLeod. Muroya’s time stayed at the top until Matt Hall knocked him off the top spot. With the top two championship contenders left to run, drama was about to strike. Hannes Arch started his run well with times at the first split “in the green” but, on approach to Gate 5, he pulled up and aborted his run leaving him with a Did Not Finish (DNF) result and at the bottom of the pile. Paul Bonhomme capitalised on this, setting the time to beat for those in the second stage of qualifying.
With ‘banker’ times being set in the first round, many went for a more aggressive run to try and improve. Working for some but not others, there were no real changes in order to start. Peter Besenyei completed his second lap almost 5 seconds faster than his first thanks to a clean run. However Dolderer picked another two penalties for incorrect level, adding four seconds to his time and leaving him well into the bottom section of the leader board. Bad luck also struck for Pete McLeod again as he picked up 5 seconds of penalties for a pylon strike in Gate 6 and incorrect level in Gate 10.
Like the first qualifying round, it came down to the last three racers for the closest action. Matt Hall put in a blistering run of 1:06.284 to steal the lead from Bonhomme. Hannes Arch’s misfortune continued as he failed to start the aircraft meaning a Did Not Start (DNS) and a position at the bottom of the times. Paul Bonhomme took to the skies for the final run and, with all the pressure upon him added too with the first two splits being in the red, he clawed back the time and finished with a 1:06.023 – a new course record.
Opening Sunday’s action was Yoshihide Muroya up against German Matthias Dolderer with both pilots mid-table in the championship and points all important. However, the Japanes Pilots 1:07.623 was over a second quicker advancing him to the next round. The Godfather of RBAR, Peter Besenyei posted a comparatively slow 1:08.919 as he opened up his head to head against Frenchman Francois Le Vot. Penalties for incorrect level and insufficient smoke left Francois wanting, especially with a time still 1.5 seconds off his competitor before the penalties were applied. Fellow countryman Nicolas Ivanoff fared much better fending off the American Michael Goulian in heat 3 whilst in heat 4, Czech Martin Sonka followed up his fast qualifying pace posting the days fastest time at that point of 1:07.405 to beat Juan Velarde.
British hopes of a home win not only rested on Paul Bonhomme but also on his follow competitor Nigel Lamb – who took on American Kirby Chambliss in heat 5. Running first, Nigel took a 2 second penalty for passing a gate too high and must have thought his chances were slim to progress, however Kirby suffered the same error during his run and lost out to Lamb by half a second.
The final two heats of the day included the two fastest qualifiers from the day before. Matt Hall flew against Canadian Pete McLeod in heat 7 and became the first to break in to the 1:06 times on the Sunday. His place in the Round of 8 was then all but guaranteed after McLeod struck Gate 6 and took a 3 second penalty.
The final heat was the one that the crowd had been waiting for with favourite Paul Bonhomme in action against Hannes Arch. It was Arch who set the benchmark for the day and proved that his difficulties the day before had not affected him setting an absolutely blinding 1:06.178. With a mountain to climb, Bonhomme himself put in an incredible lap that, against anyone else, would have seen him straight through – however his 1:06.961 was not enough to beat Arch outright but still allowing him to claim the fastest loser position in the next round – an odd term for a pilot who was one of only three to post a time below 1:07 in the round!
Going in to the Round of 8, it was once again the turn of Yoshihide Muroya to start proceedings against Peter Besenyei. Muroya stepped up his game and found almost a second to shave off his previous time, which proved too much for the Hungarian to match. Despite having a brilliant qualifying and first round pace, Martin Sonka struggled to find pace in heat 2 posting a 1:10:114 and losing to Nicolas Ivanoff by over two seconds.
Australian Matt Hall once again showed his consistency and great pace around the Ascot track setting a time of 1:06.531 for Nigel Lamb to beat as a battle of the MSX-R racers took place. With his birthday the day after, Lamb tried his best but even a weekend best time of 1:06.993 was not quite enough on this occasion.
In a repeat of the final heat of round 1, the final heat of round 2 saw Bonhomme against Arch but with the running order reversed. Laying down a 1:06.542 Bonhomme had thrown down the gauntlet and the crowd desperately waited to see if it was enough. At the far end of the track though it seems that the technical gremlins that had previously been plaguing Arch’s qualifying attempts had returned, with his Zivko Edge 540 v3 once more refusing to start. Despite all the efforts of the crew to get it up and running, time was called and another DNS recorded allowing Bonhomme a pass in to the final 4.
The Final 4 round therefore consisted of Muroya, Ivanoff, Hall and Bonhomme with the racing to take place in that order. With the head to heads over, this round is a sprint to the finish with the fastest taking home the glory and all important championship points. The running order as above, Muroya posted a 1:07.024 benchmark for others to follow however picked up a 2 second penalty for incorrect level. Perhaps a sign of how much each pilot was pushing to claim the win, both Ivanoff and Hall also picked up 2 second penalties for too high and incorrect level respectively leaving the order as Hall, Muroya, Ivanoff with just the local favourite Bonhomme to run. With all the pressure on him and knowing that the other three pilots had picked up penalties some may have thought that Bonhomme would have taken it easy but he had other ideas. A perfect lap setting a 1:06.416 with no penalties clinched the win by over 2.5 seconds much to the appreciation of the gathered crowd. Despite only making it through as fastest looser into the second round, Paul Bonhomme’s win was rightly deserved – possibly the most consistent pilot of the entire weekend and the only one to post times in 1:06 for every round.
The Red Bull Air Race really does live up to its name as the fastest motorsport series on the planet. The skill of all the pilots is clear to see and their training and fitness to endure forces up to 10g whilst lower than 25m from the ground at speeds over 200mph ensures they stay at the top of their competitive game. The racing at Ascot was fast and furious but, above everything else, highly entertaining and a brilliant day out especially with a Brit winning on home turf.