The big shock we all had was Red Bulls’ announcement in late May that this would be the last year of the Red Bull Air Races and that the 2019 season would be shortened.
Since Red Bull Air Racing was founded by Péter Besenyei 16 years ago, the races have done a huge amount to put aerobatics on the world stage and provide a spectacle that is unmatched by any other sport, anywhere else in the world.
The aim of the Red Bull Air Race series was to develop a new aviation race that would challenge the ability of the world’s best pilots, creating a race in the sky that was not simply about speed, but also precision and skill. For those of us in the Challenger Class the end of the series has been particularly disappointing as we were all working hard on our goal of getting to and then winning the Master Class.
Due to schedule changes my first race so far this year was at Kazan Russia over 14-15 June. It was a very varied race meeting for me.
The first day, the Free Practice, went well and I was chuffed to have set the fastest Challenger Class time. I guess the blustery wind helped since I’m from Port Elizabeth and was perhaps more used to it than the other contenders. For Free Practice 1 after my long lay-off I was second pilot into the track and for some weird reason I just didn’t feel right and couldn’t get into the ‘groove’. Still, I had a good clean flight with no penalties, but I was a little off the pace and so a disappointing sixth fastest.
Free Practice 2 in the afternoon went much better as I could ‘feel’ the track much better. The rain stopped just before I went through the start gate. I tried a few different lines and found my groove, and when I saw that I had posted at sub 1.10s time I was happy with my performance. And it was enough, as Baptiste Vignes was 0.131s behind and two time Challenger champ Florian Bergér was third.
Rookie Patrick Strasser announced that he was a serious contender by finishing third in FP1 – his first time in a full racetrack. He went on to finish fourth in the later FP2 session after failing to put in a penalty-free run.
Unfortunately Day 2 was ‘not a great day at the office’ for me. When it came to the race I broke one of my own rules; don’t do anything you haven’t practiced. I was one step behind the plane and when I got to the Vertical Turning Manoeuvre (VTM) I took a line I had never practiced and it cost me valuable time.
Sunday was Race Day and I was determined to make up for the previous day’s mistake. I stuck to my game plan and it went well, but I was perhaps just being slightly too conservative. So in the end Florian Berger managed to put in a time six hundredths of a second faster and I had to settle for second place on the podium. Still, second is my best ever performance so far, and I was well pleased. Perhaps recognising the end of the Red Bull Air Race era, we let it all hang out on the podium, with champagne flying everywhere.
Perhaps the organisers were being ultra-cautious so as not to jinx the RBAR’s fatality free record, but what was noteworthy was the strong stance that RBAR had towards safety and the human factors affecting the pilots and all the crew during this event. The support which they provided was amazing. Nonetheless, for us competing, it seemed as though it was just a normal race, proving that the professionalism within this project really is exceptional!
The remaining races are: Hungary on 13-14 July and Japan on 7-8 September.
I am looking forward to a strong finish to the series!