There are few racetracks as unpredictable and exciting as the Abu Dhabi Corniche. From its shifting winds, high-G turns, changing landscape, to an ever-expanding skyline, the season opener is far from a gentle introduction to the world's fastest motorsport series.
Abu Dhabi has been a popular fixture on the Red Bull Air Race calendar ever since the World Championship officially began in 2005, and for good reason. The beach on the Corniche side of the racetrack gives spectators an excellent vantage point to witness all the action. The chicane in front of the beach serves as a tribute to the landmark, with the popular turning manoeuvre positioned in such a way that the high-G force pull-up is facing the hotels that flank the iconic Emirates Palace.
The racetrack aside, the picturesque blue skies, beautiful Abu Dhabi shoreline and towering skyscrapers provide a dramatic backdrop and make the UAE capital a perfect location for the first round of the World Championship.
However, Abu Dhabi is also location that can frustrate even the most experienced pilots. The prevailing winds are typically moderate from one direction in the morning, before switching to strong winds from the exact opposite direction in the afternoon. This makes it difficult for the pilots to use the same race line more than once, as the influence of the wind on the planes has the opposite effect in each run.
Pylon hits are not uncommon, as even the slightest change in wind can result in planes carving through the Air Gates rather than between them. Pilots often say that there are, in essence, two different tracks at Abu Dhabi, depending on the wind. "You can line up for a gate and then at the last minute you find yourself going sideways," says two-time World Champion Paul Bonhomme. "You've got to be so careful."
Former Red Bull Air Race pilot Steve Jones – now Race Director/Head of Training – says: "The challenge at Abu Dhabi is for the pilot to fly as smoothly as possible. He must stay absolutely level without wandering up and down even half a metre in the racetrack. That way he will keep as much speed as possible. He also needs to set his engine properly, to get its maximum power."
But it seems the weather isn't the only thing on the pilots' minds for the 2014 season. Hannes Arch explains: "Abu Dhabi will be one of the most challenging races on the calendar because no one knows what the other guys have been doing over the last three years." And with the standardisation of the race engines and propellers, the changes to the pylons, and the tightening of the rules and modus, this year's season opener is set to be the most exciting one yet.
Once the competition heats up, it'll all be down to a battle of speed, skill... and a bit of luck.