Ahead of the race in Budapest this weekend, the icons of the Red Bull Air Race and today's champions in the making share their experiences of the classic stop, and in the process, they reveal just how much the sport has evolved in 15 years.
"Budapest was the second race in the history of the sport, and that's what always makes it so special to me," says American pilot Kirby Chambliss, who has captured two wins in the Hungarian capital since the inaugural Air Racing season of 2003.
In 2004, the race moved from the edge of the city to its heart. British triple World Champion Paul Bonhomme remembers when he heard that the racetrack would be over the Danube, with the pilots flying under the Chain Bridge. "I was super excited, as Kirby would say, and to be honest didn't really think it would happen. Then it dawned on me that it was going to be a truly spectacular event," he recollects.
Bonhomme also recalls the astonishing crowds of spectators when the 2004 race coincided with St. Stephen's Day celebrations. "I was blown away," he says. "I remember thinking, 'These guys really know how to celebrate!'"
Hungary's own Péter Besenyei, a Red Bull Air Race legend who was instrumental in pioneering the sport, won the Budapest race in 2003. It was he who first flew under the Chain Bridge to prove the concept.
"Initially, I didn't think that flying under the Chain Bridge would become a classic part of the Hungarian programme," he states. "Many said this was insane, [but] it was a very precisely and carefully planned operation, which was far from dangerous – although only for pilots with the right experience."
Besenyei's demonstration was convincing, and so far the retired Air Racing contender has flown under the Chain Bridge more than 180 times. But while the bridge remains part of Budapest tradition, much else has evolved. "The conditions and the rules have changed significantly since the first race in Budapest," the Hungarian hero remarks. "Another very important thing is that the Air Gates have developed by a huge margin. I have been lucky enough to test them every year, and the difference is quite noticeable. They've become taller, much more stable and can be repaired very easily and quickly. They are much more advanced."
Steve Jones who was also a contender before becoming Race Director for the Red Bull Air Race, recalls that the 2004 track was quite a contrast to the fast, linear racetrack fans will see on Saturday and Sunday.
"It was hard work! There were some seriously hard level turns and no start speed limitation. There was an aerobatic manoeuvre in the middle of the race, and we had to exit the track back under the Chain Bridge," he describes. "All this made it a bit of a scramble to get through in an accurate fashion! The modern race requires much more sophisticated and race-focused flying."
That was not the only difference. "The Race Airport infrastructure was still evolving," Jones explains. "Our hangars were pretty simple structures that covered the aircraft but didn't allow much room for anything else. The entire Race Airport was run by one guy, and we all sort of helped out. We didn't have the very short turnaround times between Round of 8 and Final 4 that are required with the modern race format."
The raceplanes and teams in those hangars differed too. Bonhomme shares, "I was flying my Sukhoi 26, a fantastic aeroplane but completely unsuitable for this style of air racing." Jones adds, "In 2004 our teams were usually just a pilot and one engineer [technician]. We have all learned so much in the intervening years."
The USA's Michael Goulian also had only a technician on his team for his maiden race in Budapest in 2006. "The team coordinator role was introduced shortly thereafter, and today the race analysts and tacticians are fundamental parts of any racing team and surely raised the bar a lot higher," he says, noting that he has team members actively contributing back home in addition to those in the hangar. "Everyone would fly factory stock aeroplanes – Sukhois, CAPs, Extras, way before the Edge 540 days. These days, the level of sophistication is enormous all around; from aircraft research and development to flight testing programmes, race intelligence and strategy. It's a much bigger, more complex sport than it used to be!"
Current World Championship leader Matt Hall details the state of technology when he first flew in Budapest. "In 2009, our plane was really just an aerobatic plane with a few speed mods. Our only real point for capturing and analysing data was a video camera, and we would look at that and make a plan. There was no measurement of G-force, RPM or speed," the Australian reports. "Now, our biggest asset for data analysis is our tactician. He has developed onboard telemetry that tells us so much about where the plane is in the track, where it should be for the ideal line and everything else in between."
Hall smiles when he thinks back on navigating under the Chain Bridge as a newcomer, flying even lower than needed to make sure there was clearance for his tail. "Now," he adds, "it's fine and easy. With the start gates coming after the bridge, you are so focused on getting a good entry into the track that you're under it before you realise!"
The race really does fly by for the pilots. "Budapest became an instant classic with layers of value added over the years... now that I am commentating I can enjoy it even more," says Bonhomme, a voice of the live broadcasts. "Think of the poor pilots, they only get to see it for two minutes on Qualifying Day and three if they are lucky on Race Day! As spectators we can really soak up the atmosphere and the spectacle."
But for those who win the classic, the moment is frozen in time. "My win in Budapest  is definitely one of my best memories of racing. There was a stupendously big crowd – the incredible atmosphere was obvious even from the cockpit," Jones relates. "I have rarely seen so many people in one place. Amazing."
Goulian, who is tied in the overall points with Hall, declares, "Winning in Budapest is a career-defining moment. For me, it's comparable to winning the Monaco GP, or the Indy 500; a badge of honour. It's home to Péter Besenyei, it's been in the calendar for so long, such a fantastic race setting over the Danube, we all love it! Hope I get the chance to be a repeat Budapest winner; now that would be special!"
Catch the classic on 23-24 June, tickets are still available HERE.