If you haven?t heard about the Red Bull Air Race World Series by now, your ears are undoubtedly filled with the sand that your head has been buried in for the past few years. Last month?s race marked the fourth visit to England as part of the World Series calendar with the event being held twice at Longleat and London respectively since it was created in 2001. This year?s didn?t fail to impress the crowds despite the inevitable ?Great? British spattering of wind and rain.
On arrival at London?s docklands area, emerging from a DLR shared with many other sardines, the first thing that struck me was the sheer mass-appeal of the event. I had my concerns that the surrounding seats in the grandstand we had booked would be filled with plane-spotters in anoraks (although I should reserve my judgement as, on reflection, an anorak would have been a handy addition to my attire) but instead we were greeted – amongst a plethora of smiling Red Bull representatives – by people of all ages. Young couples, old couples, children, anyone and everyone, and now I know why. You see, you DON?T have to be an air race fanatic to get the most out of the day ? everything is explained step by step by the commentators during the warm-up to the racing itself, using visuals on gigantic video walls to demonstrate the race format, course, scoring system, results and footage from previous race meetings, championship standings and more. Add to that a high speed, adrenaline-fuelled, in your face (and over your head) eye level aerial assault course being tackled by a handful of the world?s most skilled pilots and you know it?s going to be a good day ? whatever the weather. Air racing serves to add the third dimensional aspect to motorsport that you didn?t even know you yearned for.
As well as the racing itself there were exhibition displays from paratroopers, military and civillian helicopters performing backflips and stunt aircraft flaunting their capabilities running between the heats that were guaranteed to keep the the wide-eyed crowds glued to the skies above as the day progressed ? this is an event so huge that even London City airport was closed for the duration of competitive flying to clear the airspace with a specially erected temporary ?Red Bull? runway erected on site.
The aim of the event is for the pilots to navigate their way through the course, made up of a series of ?air gates? – giant conical structures sitauated on barges, the colours of which determine the manner in which they must be passed. Pairs of blue gates must be flown between with the wings in a horizontal fashion, whilst pairs of red gates must be passed in a ?knife-edge? fashion ? the wings in a vertical position. There are also a series of singular red air gates that form a chicane and an obstacle known as the ?quadro?, which the entrants must pass through in a knife-edge fashion in one direction before circling 270 degrees and crossing its path in a knife-edge fashion once again as they return back down toward the start-finish line for lap two. Lost? Fear not, it all makes sense when you see it.
If it all sounds like a crazy aerobatic free-for all to you, take a note of the rules. The competitors are at no time permitted to fly within the course at a speed of over 230mph, nor are they allowed to perform maneuvres that expose them to forces of over 12G ? safety first now. Flying too low (their helmet being below the lower edge of the coloured mark on any air gate) incurrs a disqualification for ?dangerous flying? following many debates earlier this season whereas flying too high (the pilot?s helmet being above the highest point of the air gate) or at an incorrect level when passing between gates will only land the pilot with a 3 second penalty per offence. The penalty for hitting an air gate is to have 10 seconds added to your time and a surprisingly quick 3 minute break in the program whilst the gate is replaced and re-inflated. There is also a 2,000 Euro fine for any pilot who doesn?t put their smoke on whilst on the course. Rules is rules.
London being London, the high winds and rising and falling of the tide caused the air gates to move by up to 15 feet at any one time – as if negotiating them at between 180 and 230mph a mere 50 feet above the river Thames wasn?t challenging enough.
The fastest 8 qualifying pilots compete in the ?Super Eights? for the maximum number of world series points, the remaining four competing against each other to win the ?Point 1?, where the fastest runner-up still earns 1 championship point.
Let me tell you ? the noise as the aircraft dived in toward the start gate is fantastic, surpassed only by their phenomenal roar as they wove in between the air gates before us – it really gets the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end and had fans and non-fans of motorsport alike gripped for the whole afternoon.
The only Brit managing to fly himself to victory on the day was Steve Jones, who only needed a clean run to take home the 1 World Series point after the only other pilots competing in the Point 1 incurred penalties or withdrew from the event due to illness.
American pilot Mike Mangold was furious after he destroyed an air gate along with his chances of winning. It really wasn?t his weekend following a disaster in qualifying where his run was aborted due to an elevator tip detaching itself from his aircraft as he took off.
Despite his consistency and crowd-pleasing barrel rolls upon finishing every run, Hungarian Peter Besenyei wasn?t quite quick enough, and with British pilot Nigel Lamb picking up a late penalty in his first timed run it was all down to Paul Bonhomme to try and take the number one podium position in front of his home crowd and further cement his World Series lead.
Unfortunately though it wasn?t meant to be ? Bonhomme had managed a time of 1:18.63 in qualifying and needed only a 1:20 to snap up a spot on the podium but took down a gate and pulled out of the run, managing to take a mere 3 points home but still remaining at the top of the World Series League table. When interviewed afterwards and asked why he didn?t finish his run, he said ?at least I get to go to the pub earlier?. Now that?s what I like to see – a man with priorities!
In the end, the podium positions went to rookie Hannes Arch of Austria picking up third position, Corsican Nicolas Ivanoff taking second place and Kirby Chambliss of the USA in the top spot and even despite knowing that there would be a lengthy queue to use the loos and an even lengthier wait to cram myself back into the DLR sardine can I was content, having witnessed an event like nothing else I?d ever seen before first hand. If you?ve watched the television coverage and been impressed then get yourself along to a race to see, hear, smell and feel the action for yourself.
For everything that you need to know, visit; www.rebullairrace.com