For the second year running, the UK leg of the Red Bull Air Race championships took place at Ascot Racecourse; a track that’s more used to hosting horse racing than air racing. Staged over three days; Practice on Friday, Qualifying on Saturday and the Race on the Sunday, the weekend promised to be full of adrenaline and excitement for the capacity crowd.
Qualifying took place on the Saturday of the race weekend and determined the starting order for Sunday. For those unfamiliar with the format of the Red Bull Air Race, Race Day is broken down into three distinct rounds; Round of 14, Round of 8 and then Final 4, as described below:
As the race itself didn’t start until mid-afternoon, there was a chance to get up close and personal with both the pilots and aircraft in the pit area. It was more than a little refreshing to be invited into most of the hangars for a chat and some unique photo opportunities, with most of the participants available to answer any queries.
It was also great to see so many people waiting at the fence to grab photos and autographs from their favourite pilots.
The format of the Round of 14 means that those that perhaps didn’t perform to the best of their ability during qualifying, effectively get given a second chance to proceed in the race and in the most extreme case can mean that the slowest person from Saturday knocks the fastest person out.
Importantly for the home crowd, there were two pilots flying the flag for Great Britain; Nigel Lamb of the Breitling Racing Team and Paul Bonhomme of Team Bonhomme, winner of the Ascot race in 2014 and leader of the 2015 championship.
Nigel Lamb went up against Kirby Chambliss (Team Chambliss) in Heat 5 and picked up a 2-second time penalty for ‘Incorrect Level Flying’ which meant that his chances of progressing to the next round were severely impacted. However, Chambliss then went on to pick up a similar time penalty in the last stages of his run and this meant that incredibly, Lamb was through to the Round of 8.
The rest of the field continued with their duals and after a particularly intense Heat between Matt Hall and Pete McLeod, Hall joined Muroya, Bensenyei, Ivanoff, Sonka and Lamb to take up his place in the Round of 8.
Qualifying fastest on Saturday, Paul Bonhomme was in the best position possible to crack on with getting the job done on Sunday but it wasn’t going to be easy. Hannes Arch took to the sky first and set the fastest time of the day so far, putting his terrible qualifying behind him and guaranteed himself a place in the Round of 8. Bonhomme was under pressure to perform but just couldn’t quite put his mark on the circuit and lost out to Arch by seven tenths of a second but fortunately for Paul and the team, his time was enough to get him through to the next round as the Fastest Loser.
After a short break, the Round of 8 got underway and saw Lamb facing off against Australia’s Matt Hall. Lamb appeared to be in a world of his own as he posted his quickest time of the weekend but it just simply wasn’t enough to beat a truly stunning performance from Hall which saw the Brit instantly knocked out.
Matt Hall joined Muroya and Ivanoff in the Final 4 with just the last place to be decided in Heat 7.
The Race format meant that Bonhomme was to face Arche once more and Paul put in a stunning time that set the bar high but unfortunately the crowd were robbed of that fight. For the second time in the weekend, Hannes Arch and UBFS Racing were unable to get their engine started and after running out of time were declared out; Bonhomme was through and within reach of the top prize.
Unlike the previous two rounds, the Final 4 is a straight fight and the best time wins. Bonhomme was set to fly last and it was looking like all he had to do was fly a clean lap as each of the finalists picked up time penalties, with Hall guaranteeing himself second place on the podium, setting a time of 1:09.024.
As Bonhomme started his run to the first gate, 29,000 people were on their feet cheering and clapping with encouragement for the home team. Eyes darted between watching Bonhomme fly tightly around the gates and to the big TV screens in front of the crowd. As Paul reached the final gate he was well within the green and meant that as he shot through the finish gate and into the vertical, he had completed his lap in a time of 1:06.416 – just under three seconds faster than Hall!
For the second time in two years, Paul Bonhomme claimed first place at Ascot and goes into Round 6 of the Championship with a lead of eight points over Matt Hall.
Filling The Gaps
Tasked with entertaining the massive crowd between the Rounds were the AAC Apache Helicopter Display Team, RAF Chinook Display Team and Breitling Wingwalkers.
2015 has seen the Apache team conducting a pairs role demonstration but due to the confined display line at Ascot, this was not possible. Instead a solo aircraft took to the sky and put the helicopter through its paces much to the delight of the crowd, many of whom had not seen the aircraft before judging by various comments that could be heard. The display may have lacked the explosive punch that we’ve become accustomed to over the last few months but it certainly did a good job of showing off the agility of the aircraft.
Having stunned the crowd with their gravity-defying routine in 2014, Red Bull invited the Chinook Display Team back to Ascot to once again demonstrate the incredible manoeuvrability of the tandem-rotor aircraft. Chucking the helicopter about the sky seemed to leave an incredible lasting impression with the crowd as almost everyone rose to their feet and applauded the team as they bowed and exited to land back on. There may have been no running landing in their display but the increased number of nose-down quick-stops seemed to go down well!
The Breitling Wingwalkers have been busy all over the world this year and incredibly, Ascot was the first time that I had seen them display this season. Unfortunately for the team, there was little wind and this meant that their smoke lingered on the display line for longer than was desirable but the full two-ship display still seemed to entertain the crowd.
There’s no doubt about it, Ascot Racecourse has a fantastic atmosphere and is an incredible place for flying but there is a lot about the venue that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
Like in 2014, it was as if no-one had told the people on the gates that this wasn’t going to be a normal race day and when help was needed, a number of staff didn’t appear to have the answers that were required. One particular member of staff on the entrance gates was heard telling a paying visitor that they were not allowed to bring their picnic in and that they must eat it all before they got in as ‘his boss wanted them to spend their money inside the gates’ – this wasn’t a joke either, he was deadly serious. Similar reports of this sort of behaviour were also voiced on social media over the weekend, leading me to think that perhaps the guidelines for picnics needs to be revised for the event next year; especially when the prices of food and drink on the premises were higher than even the most expensive Airshows on the calendar. While there was certainly lots of variety, charging £8 for a single burger is unbelievably expensive when you’ve already paid £40 entry.
Ascot provided yet another fantastically exciting race weekend and I’m already looking forward to it again next year but certain aspects of the venue need to be refined if it’s going to attract the same people back again.