After a number of years of competition, the Red Bull Air Race series went on hiatus for three years. This year it returned with an expanded field and a number of new venues to add to the programme. One new venue is Las Vegas and Rob Edgcumbe travelled there for GAR to see how the racing has developed.
The return of the Red Bull Air Races has provided an opportunity for the organisation to make some changes to the way the races are held and to broaden the reach of the competition, making use of a number of media outlets. The races are streamed live on the website of the race organisation and the highlights are then broadcast by a number of different TV networks across the globe. The aim has been to make the best use of the methods of covering the event and to build a solid audience for future years.
The Las Vegas round of the competition was the penultimate event ahead of the season finale in Austria, home of the Red Bull company. It was a new location for the racing and made use of a well established venue in the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a large oval motor racing track northwest of the city and across the road from Nellis AFB. As race director Jim DiMatteo explained, choosing locations that are well set up to handle large numbers of people was important. “You see some water locations, what I would call traditional locations from what we have done in the beginning and then you see some new locations – Ascot, both locations here in the United States and then Spielberg in Austria are stadium type locations that have some infrastructure already established. The seats, the parking, the ticket windows, food and beverage windows, the restrooms. There is a lot of stuff that goes into something if there is nothing there. There is a lot of benefit to a series like the Red Bull races in that there is something different.”
The regulatory framework varies from country to country. The aircraft themselves are registered in different nations and the pilots are licensed in different nations. However, each regulatory body is looking for similar information on the airworthiness of the aircraft and the qualifications of the pilots. In the US, there is still regional variation. “We on a national level get the air racing accreditation in the United States and tracks approved at a national level. From a regional level it is the Inspector in Charge – waivers and permissions are granted on a regional level. It really does vary on a regional level. Texas was totally different from Vegas.”
The restart of the series brought forward a lot of what had been done from a flying perspective in the previous events. Many of Jim’s team came back on board. The same twelve pilots came back. “A lot of the corporate knowledge stayed intact. From a piloting perspective the knowledge stayed intact. This was a huge help. There was a credibility issue and there was a safety perspective. We are coming back with absolutely the best approach. Part of taking the little break was to use that opportunity to enhance safety. We did some significant things. We raised the elevation of the pylons five metres. I don’t think its detracted from the excitement of the sport. Most people don’t even notice a difference. Flying low altitude at high G, that extra 15’ is significant. Additionally we have the stock engine concept so it really is about the flying skill – choosing the right line.”
The race followed on from the Fort Worth round which was also set in a motor racing circuit. The circuit at Las Vegas provided a totally self-contained facility. The infield area was configured with a pit area for the competitors as well as a landing strip from which they could operate. It also housed the course itself with the race pylons set up across the infield and perimeter. Unlike a water course, this provides a change in elevation throughout the course which introduces a new element compared to water-based courses. Jim is conscious of the safety aspect of this. “We expand the gate distances a little bit. We also adapt the rules and judging slightly. Normally you are supposed to be level through a gate but when there is elevation change and you are down in the track coming out to Gate 4 we are allowing a non-level pass through the gate as long as it is determined you are not making an early turn to try and get an advantage on the course.”
This provided a compact setup and a relatively simple course. Paul Bonhomme was leading the series coming into Las Vegas. He assessed the track which was new to the series. “It’s a simple track and safe but, when I say simple, it is easy to fly around it the first time. Some tracks you have to have three or four goes just to get around it. Here it’s not the case. We all got around it on the first go. Having said that, there are some technical challenges with it. We’ve all been doing some weird and wonderful lines trying to get around the track in the fastest time.”
Matt Hall considered the track layout as beneficial to the operating conditions. The height of Las Vegas combined with the temperatures makes for a high density altitude which impacts performance. “This track is a bit more of an open track – a bit more of a smooth flowing track. If we were racing a tight track it would be very hard. I think they have designed a good track for the density altitude we are playing with.” Matt considered the closeness of the racing to be a big benefit. This was something Nicolas Ivanoff agreed with. “We can see with the standard engine that the gap between the first and last is reduced. When it’s a race you try to have the best plane that you can and find the small details to improve. It is a lot of work for the technician but not for me! It is a simple course but it is easy to make a small mistake – a small mistake will mean a lot of time.”
A new feature for 2014 was the introduction of the Challenger series. The established racers compete in the Masters series. However, it was recognised that entry straight into the Masters competition made life very difficult for a new competitor. They were being forced to compete against well established teams and the difference was very hard to overcome. Practice is so important to the new pilots so having their own series provides a training opportunity that they never had if entering the main competition in previous years. The challenger series is designed to provide a training ground for new competitors allowing them to build experience in a single type format and then migrate up to the Masters when they are ready. It also provides some additional competitive flying for the spectators. At Las Vegas, Halim Othman was the top of the challenger competition. This was his second win of the year and put him in a competitive position going to the final round.
The Masters competition took place over two days. The first day included free practice for the pilots and a qualifying session. There is a limited amount of flying available to the pilots on the course. Therefore, they have to maximise the use of the flights to try out different approaches to the course based on the analysis they have previously made. This might involve trying high turns at one end of the course versus a flatter, tighter line that bleeds off more speed. Pete McLeod would like to have as much track time as could have but recognises that there is a limit to how effective it can be. “To pick up time it is really about going out there with a plan, trying something and coming back and looking at the data to see what you are doing.”
The practice time was beneficial but it did not allow the chance to cover the varying weather conditions that Las Vegas has to offer. Air temperatures were quite high for the time of year combining with the height of the desert to provide density altitudes of over 4,500’. This has a noticeable effect on the performance of the planes, even with aircraft that are as light and powerful as these. Also, the temperature through the day changed and the wind direction and strength changes. The higher afternoon temperatures resulted in noticeably slower times during qualification compared to practice. The winds came into the story more significantly on the second day of racing.
The format for the second day is quite different to qualifying. In qualifying, each competitor gets two runs on the course to set their fastest time. These times then determine their position in the draw for the second day. The racing then becomes a head to head contest with each racer having one run to set a time and determine who goes through to the next round. There is also scope for the fastest losers to make it through.
Sunday had far stronger winds than had been the case on Saturday. The competition kicked off as planned but the winds were being watched to see if they would go above limits. The early runners took to the course but they were clearly having more to deal with. The first guy on track was series leader Paul Bonhomme. He had experienced a difficult time in practice and qualifying and was seventh qualifier – hence being the first to start. Sunday was no better for him and he broke the G limit during his run and was disqualified. The following pilots also had problems with a couple of pylon strikes and Peter Besenyei strayed outside the safe course area resulting in a disqualification. Hannes Arch was second in the championship but he also had a bad run and did not make it through to a scoring position.
The wind was not only affecting the pilots. It also caused a couple of the pylons to deflate as they blew over too far. The last of the initial runs was supposed to be Pete McLeod but, with the pylons collapsed, he landed while they were reset. With him on the ground, there then was a significant hold while Pete determined whether he would fly or not. The choice to fly was initially said to be his. With a hold in place, the organisers took the chance to rejig the order of things with other performers stepping into the fray. The helicopter display from Chuck Aaron always impresses the crowd. The Breitling MX-2 performance from David Martin also kept the crowd entertained. The Red Bull Air Force wingsuit team jumped into the arena and some impressive motorbike stunt skills were demonstrated by Aaron Colton.
The delay was extended one more time while the team looked at what would happen; the weather did not cooperate. If anything, the wind picked up. The operations team were talking to the met team at Nellis AFB to confirm what they were seeing and that was that no improvement was coming. Consequently, the flying was called off for the day. The rules of the competition state that the result is based on the last complete session. The debate came down to whether the session was considered complete or not and, with Pete McLeod not having flown, they determined that the qualifying session was the last one that was complete.
This meant that Pete McLeod was declared the winner with Nigel Lamb in second and Matthias Dolderer in third. This was Pete’s first win. Even so, he seemed pretty subdued about the manner in which it came about. “For sure it is not quite how I imagined it but that’s racing. The wind is something we fly in all the time. It might be nasty and you might have a pylon hit – I saw that at Ascot in the first round. Ultimately, today it was the limit of the pylons. Big respect for the organisation for making the right call to not proceed while we were in unsafe conditions. It’s not an easy call to make. We all want to put on a great race for all of the fans. Las Vegas was good to me. I got on the right side of the dice today.”
Social media also has an impact on the way in which the teams communicate. There was a substantial amount of comment online from the various competitors following the results. On the night, some opinions were quite definite. Over the days that followed, some time for reflection meant that these comments were tempered a little. However, some of the main players seemed less than impressed by the way that things had played out.
Nigel Lamb, on the other hand, was quite pleased with the outcome. With Paul Bonhomme only scoring a couple of points and Hannes Arch similarly under-performing, Nigel took a lead in the championship with one round remaining. This meant there was a very close run to the championship at the final round in Spielberg. Ultimately, this was sufficient for Nigel to claim his first championship, albeit by a very close margin.
The return of the Red Bull Air Races was by no means guaranteed. There were many who assumed that, when it stopped three years ago, it would not come back. However, it has returned and has focused more on the media coverage and spectator access. The results seem to be very positive and hopefully we will see the championship go from strength to strength.