Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The Red Bull Air Race at Ascot in 2014 was one of my absolute favourite events of the year so it really was a no-brainer that it should be included on the must-attend events this year. Ascot really is one of the stand-out venues for Red Bull Air Race with a great backdrop and topography which provides an amazing spectacle for spectators and television. It is however a complicated one for the organisers, particularly those concerned with airspace. The proximity to London Heathrow and its busy airspace and other built up areas creates a very tight arena for the racing and supporting air displays plus simply getting aircraft to and from the venue.
On the ground there is an amazing atmosphere with entertainment built around many of Red Bull’s other activities including trials biking, Freestyle mountain bikes and much more. It wasn’t just Red Bull branded exhibits, the Royal Navy had a recruitment area built around a Westland Sea King HC4 plus there were various exhibits including the E-Go aircraft and a new electric racing aircraft.
The main action open to the public takes place across the Saturday and Sunday with two categories of racing, the Challenger and Master Series. The Friday before the event is usual a day of training, but poor weather prevented anything but arrivals and a calibration flight by former Red Bull Air Race champion Mike Mangold. That meant pilots only had the use of the training periods allocated on Saturday to master Ascot’s tricky course.
This year saw the Air Race bring in the expert commentary of Brendan O’Brien into the mix alongside their usual team. Brendan’s keen eye for the nuances of air racing certainly brought the event alive spotting all the different techniques and the occasional small mistakes made by the competitors which cost them time.
Supporting the racing were air displays from military and civilian backgrounds. The British Army sent a solo WAH-64D Apache AH1 from the Attack Helicopter Display Team which gave a very dramatic routine of its agility and distinctive shape against the wooded backdrop of Ascot. It was great to see the Royal Air Force’s Boeing Chinook HC4 back at Ascot under the command of Flt Lt Brett Jones. Ascot is perhaps the best venue to see the Chinook display as the tight arena means the display is kept as tight as possible. It also marks in incredible contrast to light and nimble racing machinery that is the focus of the day.
For fixed wings displays, the Ascot display area really is a challenge. Breitling, which has a very strong interest in the Air Race as the competition’s official time keeper, sent the Breitling Wingwalkers. Pilots Dave Barrell and Martyn Carrington flew a slightly modified routine to fit around the airspace restrictions with Freya Paterson and Nikita Salmon on the wings. A bonus for the spectators on Sunday was seeing the team and land on the small grass strip for a close of view of the beautiful Boeing Stearmans.
Both Saturday and Sunday of the Air Race see a full day’s worth of racing. Saturday sees training and qualification for the Master class as well as the competition for the Challenger Class. The latter is the feeder competition for the Master Class allowing a new line of pilots to build experience in the Air Race environment and points towards a “Superlicence.” Unlike the Master class, the challenger pilots do not run their own aircraft and instead use Extra 330LX aircraft supplied by the organisers. The course is slightly altered to with the challenger pilots missing the tricky slalom of pylons. Winning the 2015 Ascot Challenger race was Petr Kopfstein of the Czech Republic with Christian Bolton of Chile in second and Daniel Ryfa of Sweden in third.
Every sport needs drama and perhaps a dash of controversy to really grab the public imagination and the Master Class really did that in 2015. With Peter Beseneyi changing aircraft, just two aircraft types are used in the master class. Britain’s Nigel Lamb and Australia’s Matt Hall both field the MX Aircraft MXS-R while the rest of the field use either V2 or V3 versions of the Zivko Edge 540. However, no two aircraft look alike thanks to some very distinctive colour schemes for each team and a multitude of modifications. Perhaps the most noticeably modified aircraft is that of Japanese competitor Yoshihide Muroya who essentially has created a low back version of the Edge 540 V3. In the main, most of the competing aircraft have various canopy shapes, wheel spats and wing-tip shapes. However, as in 2014, all have the same engine and propeller types and have to conform to weight requirements.
While it remains a fun event, there is still a great competitive edge that has attracted the world’s media. Muroya even has his own personal press team which follow his progress in championship. With the addition of two new pilots, Francois Le Vot of France and Juan Velande of Spain joining the championship, the format of the racing has been revised to 2015. This is not without controversy as some pilots believe it just creates a lottery that knocks out some of the fastest pilots. Certainly, in my own view there doesn’t seem to be that much point to the qualification day now as there is such limted reward; perhaps the fastest times from qualification day should also be credited with championship points? As if to prove the point, in setting the fastest time local hero Paul Bonhomme ended up facing Hannes Arch, his main competitor in the championship, in the first knockout round when Hannes’ aircraft failed to set a time due an engine problem.
For Paul Bonhomme and Nigel Lamb the UK round certainly throws the spotlight on to them and their teams. Team Bonhomme in particular with their championship lead were the focus of attention for the media who left many of the other teams entirely alone. Such attention can’t be easy to handle, particularly ahead of a any competition but all the teams seem to soak it up in a calm professional manner.
Race day once again saw Hannes struggle with his engine, but his crew managed to get his aircraft started for the race-off with Bonhomme. Unbelievably he set the fastest time against Bonhomme in a closely fought heat. However, such was the pace that Bonhomme advanced to the next round setting the fastest losing time and setting up yet another heat against Arch.
The rematch brought high drama as the crowd watch Bonhomme power down the grass runway into the course. But as Paul set another blistering time, drama was unfolding on the ground as yet again Hannes Arch struggled to start his engine. His propeller blades were still hopelessly turning on the started motor as Bonhomme completed his run and zoomed vertically over the course and headed off to the hold. Eventually, the Race committee called time on Hannes Arch forcing his withdrawl from the heat sending Bonhomme into the final four seeing him pitted again Nicholas Ivanoff, Yoshihide Muroya and Matt Hall.
Bonhomme flew last in the final four. One by one, Ivanoff, Muroya and Hall all collected penalties during their final runs leaving Bonhomme the task to set a fast clean run to take victory. Once again the tension around the grandstand rose as Bonhomme took off. Like motor racing, the course is divided into sectors and the big screens show the times at each split with red for slower and green as a quicker time. It was a textbook run and each green sector brought a louder cheer before a final euphoric roar as Bonhomme flew through the finishing line in the fastest time!
The euphoria continued as the final four aircraft were parked up along the rails and Bonhomme acknowledged the crowd. It was the perfect end to one of the most enjoyable aviation events of the summer that brings some very serious, exciting sport and its own very unique atmosphere.