Canada’s Pete McLeod won a thrilling Qualifying session in Abu Dhabi on Friday ahead of the 2014 Red Bull Air Race World Championship season opener as the world’s fastest motorsport series returns to the skies after a three-year break.

ABU DHABI (UAE)– The opening round of what promises to be the most exciting Red Bull Air Race World Championship ever lived up to its billing in Qualifying on Friday when Pete McLeod of Canada edged out defending champion Paul Bonhomme of Britain by just fractions of a second to win pole position for Saturday’s season opener in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Britain’s Nigel Lamb was third while Austria’s Hannes Arch was fourth on the challenging track set up over the Arabian Gulf in front of Abu Dhabi’s glistening skyline.

McLeod, the youngest pilot in the sport’s history at 30, laid down a blistering time of 57.932 compared to 58.129 for Bonhomme after the Canadian ace adjusted for a dramatic shift in winds from the south in the morning to the north in the afternoon that made the course especially difficult for many of the 11 pilots who followed. Five pilots flying after McLeod clipped the tops of the 25-meter pylons, sending the tips of the pressurized Air Gates bursting up into the sky as crowds of excited spectators watched the high-speed, low-altitude racing action along Abi Dhabi’s Corniche Road and from the sandy beaches.

“It’s exciting to get first today,” said McLeod. “I felt really good in the track and was really focused. Paul was right there behind me and there were a bunch of other guys close behind too. Some of the other guys after me might have had some misfortune with the wind changing or first race qualifying round jitters.”

It was a nail-biting afternoon for Arch, who hit a pylon in his first Qualifying run and flew more conservatively in his second run, as well as for Bonhomme. Gone are the days when the two seasoned aces – who have won the last three championships – were well ahead of the pack, because the field has grown more competitive with all 12 pilots flying standardized engines and many of the younger pilots have worked hard to catch up.

Many of the pilots initially thought the course was going to be easy compared to the six previous races in Abu Dhabi, which has hosted the season-opener since 2005. But the capricious winds in Abu Dhabi on Friday and strict regulations this season made it a challenge to fly fast and clean through the track. Saturday’s race action starts at 1 p.m.

In other airborne action on Friday, François Le Vot of France, Daniel Ryfa of Sweden and Juan Velarde of Spain finished in first, second and third place respectively in the Challenger Cup, an exciting new element of the Red Bull Air Race that’s growing the sport by giving promising pilots the chance to develop their skills.

Results Masters: 1. Pete McLeod (CAN), 2. Paul Bonhomme (GBR), 3. Nigel Lamb (GBR), 4. Hannes Arch (AUT), 5. Matt Hall (AUS), 6. Martin Sonka (CZE), 7. Nicolas Ivanoff (FRA), 8. Kirby Chambliss (USA), 9. Yoshihide Muroya (JPN), 10. Matthias Dolderer (GER), 11. Michael Goulian (USA), 12. Peter Besenyei (HUN)

Results Challenger Cup
: 1. Francois Le Vot (FRA), 2. Daniel Ryfa (SWE), 3. Juan Velarde (ESP), 4. Petr Kopfstein (CZE), 5. Tom Bennet (GBR), 6. Mikael Brageot (FRA)