In mid-April, the famed Red Bull Air Race World Championship returned to San Diego, California. Racers from all over the world descended on Browns Field and San Diego Bay for a chance to claim a win in the second race of the 2017 season. For many, the weeekend would be filled with one upset after another as pilots broke in new aircraft and faced fierce competition.
History of Red Bull Air Race World Championship
Created in 2003, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship celebrated its landmark 75th race at the 2017 season opener in Abu Dhabi back in February. The Red Bull Air Race World Championship features the world’s best aerobatic race pilots in a pure motorsport competition that combines speed, precision, and skill. Using the fastest, most agile, and lightweight racing planes, pilots hit speeds of 230 mph while enduring forces of up to 10G as they navigate a low-level slalom track marked by 82-foot-high, air-filled pylons. From 2011-2013, the annual races were on hold as new safety improvements were put into place. In 2014, the Challenger Cup was conceived to help the next generation of pilots develop the skills needed for potential advancement to the Master Class that vies for the World Championship.
Typically flown on weekends, the event begins with a training day where pilots are required to fly two training flights through the course before the knock-out style races begin. This not only gives the pilots an introduction to what flying the course will be like, but the times set by each racer in the last training session determine the order in which they will fly during the qualifying races the following day,a sort of pre-qualifying. The order begins with the slowest pilot and ends with the fastest.
In qualifying, the racers are given two flying sessions to place for the finals. The best overall time of the two sessions is counted towards Race Day.
On race day, all racers go through another two sessions and the times from those determine the 14th through 9th placings. The remaining eight top placing racers then advance to the finals the next day.
The finals begin with the Round of Eight that determines the 8th through 5th placings. The four fastest racers then go on to duel for the 4th through 1st positions.
At the end of each race event, Championship Points are awarded to the pilots based on their placings as such:
- 1st – 15 points
- 2nd – 12 points
- 3rd – 9 points
- 4th – 7 points
- 5th – 6 points
- 6th – 5 points
- 7th – 4 points
- 8th – 3 points
- 9th – 2 points
- 10th – 1 points
- 11th – 0 points
- 12th – 0 points
- 13th – 0 points
- 14th – 0 points
Red Bull describes the race course setup in this way:
As many of the stops on the World Championship calendar are classed as exotic, pilots often have to battle against the elements, with extreme heats, shifting winds and harsh storms always a possibility. As a result, no two Red Bull Air Races are ever the same.
On average, the racetracks measure approximately 6km in length and are marked by race-bespoke Air Gates. The unique inflatable pylons, which form the Air Gates and define the racetrack, were first developed in 2002 and have evolved year-on-year into the sophisticated design currently used.
When the track is designed it consists of the Start/Finish Gate, three or four two-pylon gates, which the pilots have to fly straight and level between and a chicane that comprises of three individual pylons that pilots will have to bank around. At one end of the course a Vertical Turning Maneuver is included. This is where the pilots have to fly through the gate, then turn as quickly and efficiently as possible without pulling more than 10G in their raceplane and then fly towards the next gate. On average there will be five straight and level gates (where up to two could be for Vertical Turning Maneuvers) and a three-pylon chicane.
Deviations from these requirements result in time penalties of varying severity. More serious infractions result in Did Not Finish (DNF) or disqualified (DQ) scores. Penalties are categorized as:
One Second Penalty
Two Second Penalty
- Flying too high, through or over an Air Gate
- Incorrect level (at an angle) crossing through an Air Gate
Three Second Penalty
- Hitting a gate (1st time)
- Hitting a gate (2nd time)
Did Not Finish
- Deviating from course
- Exceeding 200 knots (370 km/h; 230 mph) when crossing the Start Gate
- Aircraft weight below 698 kilograms (1,539 lb) after the race
- Exceeding 10G for more than 0.6 seconds
- Exceeding maximum load factor of 12G
- Hitting a gate (3rd time)
- Uncontrolled movements or flight
- Close to ground pull-up from descent
- Crossing safety line
- Negative G-turn around a pylon
- Flying below 49 ft. (15 m.) between Air Gates
- Flying into clouds
- Entering course at an angle exceeding 45 degrees
- Ignoring Race Director commands
San Diego Races
More than 20,000 spectators lined San Diego Bay on Saturday, April 15 as the reigning Red Bull Air Race World Champion battled with two fierce opponents – the man who currently leads the standings and an American in his home race – for the top spot in qualifying at the second stop of 2017. As the pilots raced at speeds of 230mph, American Michael Goulian (58.978) was right on the tail of defending titleholder Matthias Dolderer of Germany, who came out on top with a time of 58.332. Czech Republic’s Martin Šonka (58.980) finished in third. In the Challenger Class, one of the youngest pilots in the history of Red Bull Air Race, American Kevin Coleman, topped the timesheet at 1:09.905.
Dolderer was the dominant force of the 2016 season, winning the second stop of the year and going on to clinch the championship even before the season finale. But it was Šonka who claimed the race win at the 2017 season opener in Abu Dhabi to put himself at the head of the overall standings for the first time in his career. Goulian, whose last win was in 2009, seems to be flying with renewed confidence this season. Another American, two-time titleholder Kirby Chambliss, was sixth in San Diego qualifying.
On Sunday April 16, the final races took place and one upset followed another. Yoshihide “Yoshi” Muroya of Japan was the only pilot with the consistency to reach the top of the podium with a time of 58.529. Peter Podlunšek from Slovenia stunned the field in capturing second place in his first-ever Final 4, two seconds behind Muroya at 1:00.454. Dolderer was third after a pylon hit, and American Kirby Chambliss finished fourth.
Earning 15 World Championship points with the victory, Muroya jumped up 10 places in the overall standings, to third behind Šonka (21 points) and Dolderer (16). The result was especially meaningful because the next stop of the season is in Muroya’s home skies of Chiba, Japan – where he earned his first Red Bull Air Race win in 2016.
“I’m quite happy. We had a very hard time at the season opener in Abu Dhabi, and we’ve been working really hard for months,” said Muroya, who had an over-G penalty at the 2017 kickoff. “My crew and my family have been helping a lot to help us get more stable and consistent, and I thank them. The next race in Japan is going to be a big one, and it’s an important step forward to win here as I head to my home country. It’s a huge crowd and pressure for me, but I will have fun there.”
In the day’s earlier action, 2016 Challenger Cup winner Florian Bergér of Germany earned his first Challenger Class win of the season.
The rankings following the San Diego races are as follows:
Tickets for the 2017 Red Bull Air Race World Championship – including the third stop, an exciting return to Chiba, Japan on 3-4 June, are on sale now. For more information on tickets and all the latest, visit www.redbullairrace.com.
We at AirshowStuff would like to thank Lora Bodmer of Deep Communications for Red Bull in San Diego for allowing us to cover these exciting races and Red Bull GmbH for putting on this incredible series year after year!