Tension was in the air at Qualifying for the Red Bull Air Race season opener in Abu Dhabi on Friday, as a new rule awarded World Championship points to the top three. The 2017 World Champion Yoshihide Muroya of Japan seized the opportunity, earning three points and the top of the overall standings in first. Canada’s Pete McLeod took second and the USA’s Michael Goulian earned third. With 25 points on offer to the winner of Saturday’s race, in less than 24 hours any one of the 14 international pilots could claim the head of the overall leaderboard.

Qualifying in spectacular Abu Dhabi witnessed appropriately spectacular flying on Friday. Muroya, who has not won a race since he clinched the 2017 title, avoided the over-G penalties that have sometimes been his nemesis to deliver textbook Vertical Turning Manouevres on his way to a time of 53.024. McLeod logged 53.240 and Goulian’s time was 53.400.

Based on the new points system, the winner of Qualifying earns three points, the second place finisher takes two points and the third-place pilot earns one. Goulian was awarded one point, but although McLeod came in second to Muroya, based on a post-race technical inspection, the Race Committee decided not to award the Canadian two points due to the fact that one magneto was out of the limit on his raceplane. It was apparent that the issue was not intentional, and so McLeod’s second-place ranking will be maintained.

Defending World Champion Martin Sonka of the Czech Republic finished fourth, exactly a half second behind his longtime rival Muroya, and from top to bottom, the entire field of 14 pilots were separated by just 1.568s.

The 2018 World Championship was determined by only five points, so the points picked up in Qualifying across the season could make a critical difference overall at the end of the season.

Muroya also captured the season’s first DHL Fastest Lap Award on Friday, which is presented to the pilot who clocks the fastest single lap of the two-lap Qualifying runs. At the end of the season, the pilot with the most DHL Fastest Lap Awards will win the coveted DHL Fastest Lap Trophy. Muroya said : “This is just three points, but at the end of the year maybe it’s going to be a big three points. It’s really important to collect as many Qualifying points as possible, and this is a really good start. We were sometimes struggling with Over-Gs last year – we prepared a lot for that, and for now it’s working out. My head-to-head against Nicolas Ivanoff tomorrow will not be easy – he has a fairly new engine – but I will stick with the same plan, same tactics, same lines, and we will see.”

In 2018 the Abu Dhabi racetrack was exactly the same, and the race podium was: first place Goulian; second place Muroya; third place Kirby Chambliss (USA). A technical disqualification put Sonka in fourth.

Qualifying determines the brackets for the head-to-heads of the opening round of Race Day on Saturday, 9 February.

The matchups

  • Muroya will be challenged by Nicolas Ivanoff of France, who won the Abu Dhabi race in 2016.
  • McLeod will take on the USA’s Kirby Chambliss, who has a previous 2006 win in the capital.
  • Goulian goes up against Petr Kopfstein (CZE), who has so far been flying conservatively to allow a new engine to fully break in.
  • Sonka, who took his career-first race win in Abu Dhabi in 2017, will face Chile’s Cristian Bolton.
  • The 2018 overall runner-up Matt Hall (AUS) will see a showdown with Ben Murphy (GBR).
  • 2016 World Champion Matthias Dolderer (GER) will compete against Mika Brageot (FRA).
  • François Le Vot (FRA) will take on Juan Velarde (ESP).

For ticket information and all the latest news on the Red Bull Air Race, visit www.redbullairrace.com.

Results Master Class Qualifying, Abu Dhabi 2019: 1. Yoshihide Muroya (JPN) 53.024, 2. Pete McLeod (CAN) 53.240, 3. Michael Goulian (USA) 53.400,4. Martin Sonka (CZE) 53.524, 5. Mika Brageot (FRA) 53.572, 6. Juan Velarde (ESP) 53.687, 7. Ben Murphy (GBR) 53.748, 8. Matt Hall (AUS) 53.792, 9. François Le Vot (FRA) 54.177, 10. Matthias Dolderer (GER) 54.180, 11. Cristian Bolton (CHI) 54.228, 12. Petr Kopfstein (CZE) 54.425,13. Kirby Chambliss (USA) 54.571, 14. Nicolas Ivanoff (FRA) 54.592