The opening race of the 2010 Red Bull Air Race World Championship took place in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, for the sixth consecutive year. Duncan Monk provides the first of two articles for AeroResource, with an introduction to the race and the qualifying.

Along the turquoise waters of Abu Dhabi’s sun drenched Corniche shoreline, with a backdrop of towering skyscrapers, the opening round of the 2010 Red Bull Air Race World Championship took place over the weekend of 26-27 March 2010.

Reigning Champion Paul Bonhomme of Great Britain came home the victor, narrowly beating fellow Briton Nigel Lamb, with Hungarian Peter Besenyei taking third place. Local and race favourite, Austrian Hannes Arch, flying the Abu Dhabi Tourism adorned Edge 540 finished a disappointing 11th after being disqualified for dangerous flying.

Just five years since its launch, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has evolved to become one of the world’s most exhilarating motor sports, combining agility, high speed, extreme manoeuvrability at low altitude, and demands exceptional flying skill from the world’s most talented pilots.

The series was devised by the Red Bull sports think-tank. The initial aim for the race was to create the most advanced aerial sporting challenge ever seen. So in 2005, the ten pilots who were invited, lined up and competed in first ever Red Bull Air Race comprising of seven rounds which culminated in former American fighter pilot Mike Mangold coming out on top, winning five of the seven races.

The sport has quickly built up a huge following around the world with millions captivated by the exciting and dynamic format. With the race tracks usually set up in the middle of cities, the sporting action is brought directly to the audience. In 2009 an estimated 3.5 million spectators turned up to watch the six races, which was the same amount that turned out in 2008 to watch 8 races. Also an estimated 270 million viewers followed the Red Bull Air Race on television broadcasts around the world in 2009.

The specially designed aerial courses are the result of extensive research and evaluation, and change from venue to venue. The unique inflatable pylons or ‘Air Gates’ were first developed in 2002 and have evolved over the past eight years into the design you see today. The Air Gates are constructed to be robust and safe in the event of a pylon strike and can be repaired and re-inflated within minutes.

The logistical challenge of moving the Red Bull Air Race around the globe is enormous. A team of 350 people bring the entire race infrastructure with them. Working around the clock, it takes an average 12 days to set everything up, and 3 days to break everything down again. An average of 400 Tons is transported by rail, ship and air freight from one location to the next. When travelling overseas the equipment – which includes everything from hospitality houses, race tower, Air Gate barges, electronic equipment, television camera’s and race planes is loaded on to two specially chartered Boeing 747’s.

The aircraft of choice for the Red Bull Air Race series are the Edge 540 and the MXS-R. Both aircraft are fast (over 370 km/h), lightweight and extremely agile. These attributes enable the pilots to manoeuvre effectively through the race track and cope with high G forces, which are limited to 12g for the series. The planes minimum race weight is now 540 kg’s. They are constructed of light but stiff composite materials such as carbon fibre. The light weight structure combined with the efficient controls results in agility that even modern day fighter jets cannot match.

Fifteen talented pilots from around the world will contest the 2010 season, with 2 new rookie pilots making their debuts in Abu Dhabi – Ex Czech Air Force pilot Martin Sonka will fly an Edge 540 along with Brazilian airline pilot, and honorary member of the Brazilian Air Force, Adilson Kindlemann flying the MXS-R.

The actual race day format is split into four races. The top ten pilots from Fridays qualifying automatically go through to the Top 12. The remaining five pilots compete in the Wild Card race on Saturday afternoon, with the top two pilots joining the other ten to form the Top 12. The four lowest pilots are then eliminated to give us the Super 8, and then another four are removed to leave the Final 4 pilots to fight it out for overall supremacy.

The rules! Penalties are added to a pilots race time for the following rule  breaches: Not emanating enough smoke during the race (1 pt); Flying too high, incorrect knife flying or incorrect level flying (2 pts); Exceeding the maximum entry speed of 370 km/h (2 pts); and touching an Air Gate (6 pts).

Pilots are disqualified for any of the following: Dangerous flying – including flying too low, crossing the safety line and exceeding G load limit of 12G; Not flying the track – Deviating from the predefined race track; Exceeding 380 km/h through the start gate; and the new rule for 2010, not fulfilling the minimum pilot weight restriction of 82kg.

Although the race takes place over two days, with qualifying on Friday and the racing on Saturday, the Red Bull Airport opened three days earlier on Tuesday 23rd March, with training taking place on the two days prior to qualifying. The teams get four training sessions ahead of qualifying, two on Wednesday, in the morning and afternoon, and two on Thursday, again one each in the morning and afternoon.

The Red Bull Airport for the Abu Dhabi race was located within the Municipalities Mina Port area. It transforms one of the jetties into a fully equipped airport with its own runway, including full runway markings, windsock, tower, search and rescue helicopter, fire cover and individual hangars for each team.

All the teams have been working hard over the winter introducing new features to their aircraft such as new engine cowlings, smaller ailerons and new engines, with some modifications being more visible than others. Nigel Lamb’s Breitling adorned MXS-R has the most striking look after gaining ‘shark fin’ winglets, and Nicolas Ivanoff’s orange Edge 540 has the engine exhausts coming out of the side of his aircraft, as opposed to the usual position of underneath.

The first day of training was always going to be interesting, to see the pecking order after all the winter talk and modifications, prior to going into the first qualifying session of the year on Friday. On the first day of training Britain’s Paul Bonhomme topped the time sheets with a time of 1:11.14, just under half a second ahead of Frenchman Nicolas Ivanoff, and 2.31 seconds in front of Hannes Arch. The field was well spread out with Former Australian Air Force pilot Matt Hall, who previously flew F-18’s, finishing 3.5 seconds off of Bonhomme’s time and Nigel Lambs new Winglet tipped aircraft finishing nearly 5 seconds off the pace.

The second day of training saw the pack close right up. With the temperatures soaring into the mid 30’s, Paul Bonhomme again topped the time sheets after a clean run through the near 6-km long course in 1:12.37. Nigel Lamb was second, 0.31 behind and Ivanoff just over half a second back in third place. Hannes Arch had the fastest net time overall, but was penalised one second because his aircraft did not emit enough smoke on the race course.

One of the major problems facing the pilots in Abu Dhabi are the warm temperatures and infamous winds, which change direction and strength abruptly from a South Easterly to a North Westerly over the course of the afternoon, which make it one of the more challenging tracks on the Red Bull Air Race calendar. This years weather was too be no exception.

Friday’s qualifying day is split into two sessions, both run in the afternoon, with starting positions deemed from the last training session on Friday – fastest starts last, which in this case was Paul Bonhomme. With temperatures hitting an above average 38 degrees, and gusty winds, the pilots knew they would have their work cut out as the planes struggled with the heat.

During qualifying the top ten pilots qualify for the super 12, and it would be Austrian Hannes Arch and Team Abu Dhabi who would take the opening point of the season, which delighted the 45,000+ crowd, winning the qualifying with a time of 1:12.78. Nigel Lamb finished second 1.67 seconds behind, and the normally unflappable Paul Bonhomme had a qualifying session to forget. He picked up a two second penalty in his first run for incorrect wing level through an Air Gate and then slashed open the final Air Gate on his second run, gaining a six second penalty, leaving him languishing in third.

“The secret to winning the point today is that all the effort we put into the plane came together” said Arch. “The job they did has made a really fast airplane. The problem before was me, I was nervous in the days before qualifying and I felt pressure from Paul (Bonhomme) as he was flying really fast and never gave me any margin, I had to give everything and try to stay calm”

Fast times on both runs did much to lift the spirits of Team Breitling. “I kept my nose clean today but maybe I should have taken more of a gamble,” said Lamb. “I was a little bit conservative with my line into gate 3 as I’d just seen Nicolas Ivanoff go into it but I took 1.3 seconds off the first run. I felt lumbering and pedestrian in the first run but seeing some of the sector times, I’m now thinking maybe if I’d cut a few more corners then I could’ve had that point”.

Bonhomme, flying last, was 0.12 seconds ahead of Arch at the midway point in the final qualifying run but lost the lead on the second lap. “I wasn’t expecting it” Bonhomme said of the Air Gate hit. “About one hundred yards before the Air Gate, I realised what was going to happen. I was just trying to save time and went straight for it”.

The two rookies had differing days. Czech Martin Sonka, celebrating his 32nd birthday on Friday, had an impressive debut, finishing in 12th place. Although some 10 seconds off the pace of Hannes Arch’s qualifying time, he had a clean lap with no penalties incurred. “I’m definitely happy with today’s results,” smiled the Czech. “The main goal was to fly with no penalties and I was happy with the second flight. I don’t want to push too much. I am happy with the track and I wanted to fly smoothly”.

The other rookie, Brazilian Adilson Kindleman, kept the crowds entertained with some lively flying around the track, but was disqualified in his first run and then picked up 12 seconds of penalties in his second run (1:38:91). The Team Petrobras pilot said there was still improvement in today’s flying. “I’m happy, I think I evolved from yesterday and I think I’m getting better,” he explained. “I know I crossed the crowd boundary line but I am certain the second flight was better. Flying safely is the priority so I feel I achieved that.”

The qualifying was complete and the Super 12 decided, it was a nervous overnight wait to see who could perform best the following day when the competition really began…