The Challenger Cup is a breeding ground for future Master Class World Champions of the Red Bull Air Race. It's where pilots hone their air racing skills and learn the operations and rules of the series, giving them the opportunity to potentially advance to the Master Class one day. However, there's no getting away from the fact that the Challenger Cup is electrifying and has produced some of the most exciting races.
This year was no exception. Nine pilots were enrolled in the 2017 season. The most successful pilot in the series Daniel Ryfa and 2016 champion Florian Bergér both returned as the favourites to take the title. Luke Czepiela came back for his third year and returning for their second seasons were Kevin Coleman, Melanie Astles and Ben Murphy. Three new pilots joined those six: China's Kenny Chiang, Baptiste Vignes of France and Daniel Genevey flying under the Hungarian flag.
All nine pilots had the ability to take the Challenger Cup title and it was exciting from race one...
Abu Dhabi 10-11 February
The season opener was an epic battle. It looked to be going one way from start to finish. Florian Bergér finished first or second on every timesheet but one. In Qualifying he was close to being a second faster than his nearest rival – Daniel Ryfa. However, Race Day was a different story. Bergér flew and set an impressive time of 1:00.561. He was looking good for the win and starting the defence of his title in the best way. As Ryfa was flying though the track, Bergér watched on and saw Ryfa's split times in the red. Ryfa was slower at every checkpoint but when he crossed the Hamilton Start/Finish Gate he had beaten Bergér by 0.335s.
San Diego 15-16 April
Daniel Ryfa didn't compete in San Diego, so it was Bergér's chance to get back on top. However, he was going to have stiff competition from Kevin Coleman and Luke Czepiela, as well as the unknown entity of the three pilots in their debut season. The race was going to be a close run thing between Coleman and Bergér. The German pilot topped the Free Practice sessions, but Coleman pulled it out of the bag in Qualifying. Bergér clipped a pylon, which saw him finish down in fourth. Race Day belonged to Bergér though, he finished more than a second quicker than Coleman who was second. This result put Bergér on top with 18 points and both Ryfa and Coleman chasing with 10 points each.
Chiba 03-04 June (rescheduled and hosted in Kazan)
Eight of the nine Challengers competed in the rescheduled Chiba race and it was Bergér's turn to rest. Coleman and Melanie Astles were the frontrunners. Both topped the Free Practice sessions and with Qualifying cancelled due to bad weather it was going to be a close race. Czepiela took the win, with Daniel Ryfa second. Ryfa picked up a two second penalty in his run, which cost him – without it he would've taken the win by 1.901s, which showed how quickly he was going through the track. Ben Murphy picked up his first podium of the season and new pilot Daniel Genevey missed out by just 0.152s
Budapest 01-02 July
Kenny Chiang became the first new pilot to top a timesheet when he finished fastest in Free Practice 3. Genevey went one better when he won Qualifying, giving the two new pilots a huge confidence boost going into the race. Once again Bergér won, meaning he hadn't finished out of the top two all season at that point. Czepiela finished second and Ryfa picked up another penalty, which saw him finish third. Chiang and Genevey were unable to replicate their form and finished in fifth and sixth respectively. After this race Bergér was on top of the standings with 28 points. Joint second were Ryfa and Czepiela on 24 points, just four off the leader.
Kazan 22-23 July
As there were two Challenger races over the Kazan race week, there was only one set of Free Practices and Qualifying. Bergér was once again not competing so it gave Ryfa a chance to pull ahead in the standings. The whole series turned on its head! In only his fourth race Kenny Chiang took the win in fantastic fashion, winning by more than a second. Baptiste Vignes, in the fifth race of his Red Bull Air Race career finished second, with Kevin Coleman third. In testing conditions, Daniel Ryfa had one of the worst results of his career, hitting two pylons and being penalised for incorrect level flying. Those eight seconds of penalties saw him finish last. But without Czepiela or Bergér racing, the top three standings stayed the same.
Porto 02-03 September
The Challenger pilots all mentioned how excited they were to be flying in Porto and it was set to be a great race. Bergér set the early pace with Coleman, Astles and Murphy close behind. Murphy stormed to the top of the FP3 timesheet. The race in Porto gave us one of the closest finishes in Challenger Cup history. Coleman won, but only by 0.177s ahead of Bergér. Astles was third and Genevey fourth. Murphy and Chiang both picked up penalties and finished fifth and sixth in the race.
Lausitzring 16-17 September
This was Bergér's home race so the pressure was on. Especially as both Ryfa and Czepiela were back in action. Ryfa topped two of the FP sessions, with Astles fastest in the other. Murphy took top spot in Qualifying, so this race could've been anyone's. Ryfa won, but by a mere 0.013s – a propeller spinner's distance ahead. Bergér was second with Czepiela in third. This result meant the six pilots battling it out at the season finale in Indianapolis would be Bergér, Ryfa, Czepiela, Coleman, Astles and Murphy.
Indianapolis 14-15 October
Going into the final, three pilots had a strong chance of being crowned the 2017 Challenger Cup Champion. Bergér was in the best position, with Ryfa in second and Czepiela in third. Depending on how they flew each one of them had a chance. Bergér topped FP1 and 2, with Murphy top in FP3. Astles flew out of the blocks in Qualifying and set a time of 1:18.059 for the other pilots to beat. Czepiela came closest, just 0.319s behind and Murphy was in third. Bergér was fourth, with Coleman in fifth and Ryfa last, in sixth.
It looked to be a finale to remember, but due to bad weather the race itself was cancelled and the Qualifying result stood as the race win. This meant that history was made twice in one day. Firstly, Melanie Astles became the first woman to win a Red Bull Air Race and Florian Bergér became the first pilot to win back-to-back Challenger Cups.
There were mixed feelings from the new champion as he would have liked to have won his title by racing in Indianapolis. "On the one hand I'm very happy to have won, but I would have rather flown to lose or win the first position here. Maybe I could've won the race here. It's great to have a second overall title!" Bergér exclaimed after the race.
The 2017 Challenger Cup season proved how talented these pilots are and how close the competition is. 2018 will be an exhilarating season, just wait and see...