The Challenger Cup has produced serious competitors in the Master Class. Four of the six pilots that have made the step into the elite championship have all taken step on the podium since moving up.
The only two that haven't stepped on the podium are Mikael Brageot and Cristian Bolton, both in their debut season. But they have both shown their talent by making it into the Round of 8 at least once, and in Lausitz, Brageot missed out on a Final 4 place by just 0.002s.
The Challenger Class concept was introduced in 2014 and set up to give highly experienced pilots their first taste of Air Racing in a safe and controlled environment, whilst learning the skills needed to become the Red Bull Air Race World Champion.
Race Director and Head of Training, Steve Jones, along with other members of the Race Committee saw the necessity of having this 'feeder' series. Jones explains: "The Challenger Cup is absolutely vital for the Red Bull Air Race in terms of people stepping up to the Master Class – but I think it could stand on its own – not only is it a feeder series, but it's also a great competition. We have such a high calibre of pilot taking part."
Jones was part of the team that came up with the initial concept and was an Air Race pilot from 2003-2008 and saw how it was developing into a fully-fledged motorsport. "In the early days of the Air Race we needed experienced air show pilots to cope with the strange operations, as nothing like it had been done before," says Jones. "As the sport developed it was obvious to me that we needed a more motorsport type model. We needed different formulas where pilots arrived at the top level after working their way up and learning their trade. We needed something like a Formula 2 to create a ladder where we could feed the pilots into the Master Class or stay in a successful championship series," he adds.
If a pilot wants to progress they need to get their Master Class Super Licence, and Jones is on the panel of who gains their licence, but he doesn't have a say in who goes up into the Master Class. "From my perspective, I'm not interested if they've won or finished last. I look at their flight operations and the safety aspect. I would move up a lot of Challengers if I had the say-so, because I think a lot of them are very good. Equally, the Master Class only has a limited number of spaces and disappointingly there are some that can't move up yet, but will make good Masters." Jones says.
The Challenger Class is clearly working. "I was watching Petr Kopfstein very closely and he is one of the best flyers right now. He was very smooth, yet aggressive where he needed to be and the guy is super fit, he handles the G like water off a duck's back. Cristian [Bolton] is yet to get the full potential out of his team and plane, but is flying beautifully," says Jones.
As the Head of Training, Jones, along with former race pilots Klaus Schrodt and Sergey Rakhmanin, keep a close eye on the Challenger Class pilots, and help them out where needed. "Klaus, Sergey and I all have an input. All of us are on the end of a phone, so if we see something we like, or don't like, we call them once they've landed and then at the end of the day we brief them as a group. None of us are interested in if they win or lose, so we don't give them any race tips. We're there to make sure they're developing in the correct way and that they're safe. I'm very aware that we don't need to help develop their racing skills because they're all very good. Klaus and I are very proud of them all and how they've flown this season," explains Jones.
As we head to the final round of the 2017 Challenger Class season it's time to remember the new format for this season. In the past the six best pilots of the season go through to the winner-takes-all final, which is how Petr Kopfstein and Mikael Brageot won in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Due to heavy winds in Indianapolis last year the final never took place and Florian Bergér was crowned the champion, as he was top of the leaderboard going into the final.
So the Race Committee decided that for this season the format will be tweaked. This year the final will not be a winner-takes-all competition. It will be very similar to the Master Class. Each pilot has flown five races so far this season and their top four scores will be added together. The top six (see below) have been invited to take part in next month's final in Indianapolis. At the final, the points will be added to the pilots' totals and the highest scorer will be crowned the Challenger Cup Champion.
Tickets are still available for the final in Indianapolis – get yours HERE.
The Challenger Cup Finalists