The Red Bull Air Race World Championship returned for a third successive year at Ascot Racecourse, a unique and very exciting venue for the global air racing series. The off-season between championships saw some significant changes in teams and pilots so it was a fresh look line-up for the 2016 race. On top of the racing, the Air Race features several “side act” flying displays adding to a complete day of action for the crowds.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. Photography by the author or the Red Bull Air Race photographers.
In 2015, Paul Bonhomme claimed his third world title in Red Bull Air Racing. In the days after the final race of the season in Las Vegas, he announced his retirement from the sport. In the Masters Class, that left Nigel Lamb carrying the baton of British hopes. The godfather of the Air Race, Hungarian pilot Peter Besenyei also retired from the series opening spaces to new pilots. Slovenian pilot Peter Podlunsek and Czech pilot Petr Kopstein both graduated from the feeder series, the Challenger Cup to return the Master Class to a cohort of 14 pilots.
The Challenger Cup series is the proving ground for new pilots hoping to enter the Master Class. The pilots fly identical Extra 330LX aircraft supplied by the Air Race organisers. There are eight pilots in the series, though each race only sees six compete. Like the Masters Class they amass points at each round in order to win a place at finale event in Las Vegas. This year saw ex-Red Arrows leader and current Blades pilot Ben Murphy join the feeder series alongside Francis Barros from Brazil, Florian Berger from Germany, Christian Bolton from Chile, Kevin Coleman from the US, Luke Czepiela from Poland and Daniel Ryfa from Sweden. Ben is well known to the British audience have served five straight seasons with the Red Arrows. He was part of the famous synchro pair before taking on the role of Red 1 for two display seasons. He now also flies with 2Excel Aviation as member of the Blades Aerobatic Team.
The Challenger Cup also sees the first female pilot to take part in the Red Bull Air Race. Melanie Astles is five times French Aerobatic Champion but her journey in to flying was far from easy. When she took a job at a local petrol station at the age of 18, the dream seemed over. But with hard work she became manager of an area of petrol stations and saved money to pay for flying lessons, which she began at age 21. In her very first year of aerobatic competition she clinched a victory at the French Cup in the Espoir (Hope) category. With steady progression, she moved up through the categories, winning national championships and a slot on the French National Aerobatic Team. In 2014 she finished seventh at the World Advanced Aerobatic Championships and first at the female ranking. In 2015 she was ranked 5th best female pilot in the world in the top aerobatic category – Unlimited – and was a member of the French team that won the world title in the Unlimited Aerobatic Championship.
The weather for the Ascot could not have been more of a contrast than 2015 with perfect weather throughout the three flying days and the all important build up. Ascot is one of the most picturesque venues on the Red Bull Air Race calendar taking place over the beautifully presented grounds of Ascot Racecourse and the adjacent Gold Course. Just on the horizon are some of London’s iconic landmarks such as the Wembley Arch plus the skyscrapers of Docklands.
Much like any typical motor-racing weekend, there are sessions of Free-Practice, Qualifying and Racing spread out over three days although Friday is not open to the public. The motor-racing links didn’t stop there with well-known motorbike racer and commentator Steve Parrish providing the voice of the event alongside some very excitable Red Bull colleagues!
Saturday at Ascot saw the final Free-Practice sessions, Qualification rounds for the Challenger and Master Classes plus the Challenger Cup Race. Sunday saw action exclusively based around the Master Class Race. The racing is supported by a very varied selection of other entertainment. Ascot’s famous parade ring as always was surrounded by various attractions and shows including demonstrations by World Champion trials bike rider Dougie Lampkin.
Between the various racing sessions, there were some great aviation side-acts too. Ascot falls under some very congested controlled airspace. Add to that surrounding residential and urban areas and the “display box” becomes very restricted which does limit the type of acts that can take part. Military involvement this year was a little down on previous years. The Royal Navy did however have their public relations unit on the ground alongside a static AgustaWestland Merlin HC3i on the main terraced area in-front the main grandstand. In the air, it was left to the Royal Air Force Red Arrows to represent the modern military with a low flypast on the Saturday of the event.
Red Bull themselves presented parameter acrobatics champion Pal Takats from Hungary. Pal put on an incredible performance showing off some very extreme and dramatic aerobatic figures over the Ascot in-field.
Breitling has a major presence in the Red Bull Air Race, not only as the official timekeeper of the series but it also has its own Breitling Racing Team with pilots in the Challenger and Master Class races. They also contributed to the side acts with the brilliant Breitling Wingwalkers. Pilots Dave Barrell and Martyn Carrington had to fly a highly modified routine to best fit their display into Ascot’s confines while still highlighting the wingwalking antics of Florence Rolleston-Smith and Nikita Salmon.
Rotary displays have been popular additions to the Ascot line-up for the past two years. With no modern military displays it was left to the historic and civilian world to provide the action. The Army Historic Aircraft Flight have made a welcome re-appearance on the display circuit this year and it was good to see them make the short hop from Middle Wallop to present their Agusta/Bell Sioux AH1 and Westland Scout AH1 in the air.
However the star-turn in the air was the Calidus Autogyro flown by Peter Troy-Davies. Peter’s energetic routines have won praise around the UK display circuit and he has displayed at venues large and small. His display really came into its own at Ascot with the amphitheatre created by the huge stand complex and the raised terraces. For those lucky enough to be in the Race Club and Sky Lounge much of the display remain at eye level or below!
The racing in both the Challenger Cup and Master Class are much more open this year with no one pilot dominating in terms of wins. Challenger Cup racing is a very simply. Six of the eight pilots compete in each round. Their qualification decides the starting order for the main racing in which the six pilot aim to set the fastest time flying the Extra 330LX. Completing at Ascot were Murphy, Astles, Berger, Coleman, Bolton and Ryfa. Qualification had gone the way of the home favourite, but Ben Murphy was caught out on his race run and clipped a Pylon dropping him to sixth. Coleman took the win joined by Berger and Bolton on Podium.
The Masters Class remained as unpredictable as it has been all season. Nigel Lamb had a difficult race weekend and his MXS-R aircraft appeared to be much twitchier than the others. He did advance to the Round of 8 following a challenging qualifying round. However, he was knocked out by Hannes Arch in that round who also was struggling at Ascot.
The final four shoot-out brought a fairly unfamiliar line-up of US aerobatic ace Michael Goulian, Australian Matt Hall, Hannes Arch and the current championship, Matthias Dolderer from Germany. Only Dolderer and Hall managed to complete the course in the final four with Hall claiming a critical win to revive his championship hopes. Both Arch and Goulian aborted their runs though Arch was able to claim third having set a faster time in the earlier rounds. It is great to see such an open championship which will hopefully come down to a tense finale in the autumn.
The Red Bull Air Race at Ascot is a superb day out, even if the atmosphere this time around seemed slightly muted. Red Bull Air Race is refreshingly different from a standard airshow with the added bite of true competition and some energizing side shows. The combination of the Red Bull and Ascot organizations means that the event is exceptionally well organized and the venue in terms of facilities and visual impact is second to none. We hope Red Bull continues to visit Ascot for many years to come.