Since the future of personal transport is in the air (because that’s where the space is), it follows that the future of motorsport must be up there, too. Apart from anything else, race circuits at ground level will be booked up by people from DriveTribe driving cars for fun, because pretty soon that’s not going to be allowed in the real world.
Air racing, then. It has a long and wreckage-strewn history as old as the aeroplane itself, which is getting on for 120 years if you haven’t been paying attention. It has evolved from simple point-to-point competitions (think of ‘Those magnificent men…’) through terrifying multi-plane events around unforgiving wooden towers, to the form in which it is best known today, which is the Red Bull Air Races.
On the face of it, the Red Bull Air Races don’t sound that promising. The aeroplanes race one at a time, against the clock, around a short course marked out with inflatable pylons, or ‘air gates’. So there is no overtaking, no crashing into each other, and even the air gates are so gossamer thin that a plane can fly right through one in complete safety, the structure simply collapsing like a punctured ego. You do get a time penalty, though.
A Brazilian pilot, Adilson Kindlemann, did once end a race upside-down in a river, although he was OK. Australian Matt Hall did better than this, by somehow flying into the drink but then recovering and flying out again. I’m not sure this has ever happened before. Overall, Red Bull air Racing has an unblemished safety record.
Dull? Now I’ve been to see the final of the 2018 series live, in Texas, I’d say definitely not. There are only two basic types of aeroplane in the championship, so they’re all evenly matched. It’s about pilot skill. You can see the whole course from any spectator spot, which is not true of any race circuit at zero feet QFE that I’ve ever been to. The planes are faster than F1 cars and fly at 15 metres above the deck, manoeuvring so violently that the pilots are subjected to 10g. And that’s proper brain-draining g, not that snowflake lateral stuff.
More importantly, the aeroplanes are as colourful as exotic flowers and draw beautiful shapes in the sky, trailing smoke, so that the pilot’s efforts are recorded as an aerial sketch that dissolves and then is gone, a bit like a Banksy.
And consider this: the last round, and indeed the whole championship, went down to the final run of the day. And even though there was only one aeroplane in the sky, I spotted the moment where Martin Sonka snatched victory.
The pilots have a day of practice and qualifying, as usual with motor racing. The difference is, though, that the circuit they learned on Saturday was not the one they flew on the Sunday; because on Saturday the weather was sunny and still, and on Sunday it was overcast and blustery. These things – air temperature, air pressure, wind speed and direction – affect the way aeroplanes fly and even how their engines run.
Sonka cracked it as he turned around air gate no 8. Flying aeroplanes is, in the dullest possible terms, about managing energy, and he wasted not a drop of it in what looked, from the ground, like a perfect drifting stroke from a master calligrapher’s pen. That was the win, right there, in the fraction of a second saved that put him on the top step of the podium.
Good to watch. I can’t remember the last time I thought that about an F1 race.