Since the Challenger Class began in 2014, seven pilots have made the transition up to the Master Class; we look at how they've performed since moving into the elite series.
After racing in the debut season of the Challenger Class, both François Le Vot and Juan Velarde were the first pilots to be given the chance to move up. There was a lot of pressure on them to see how they would cope with running a team and competing at the higher level.
François Le Vot
Le Vot won the first three Challenger Class races and was a firm favourite to move up after that success. He struggled in his first season in the Master Class, and although he always seemed to fly cleanly and smoothly he was far behind his rivals. He had a fantastic start to the 2016 season, claiming the first podium of his Master Class career, but he was still off the pace. He struggled on but no matter what modifications he made to his raceplane he was unable to improve its performance. Halfway through the 2017 season he upgraded his raceplane to an Edge 540 V3 and improvements started showing almost instantly. He's now looking settled and has started the 2018 season well, finishing 7th in Abu Dhabi and with World Championship winning Technician Tobias Odewald in his team, he will surely start to shine in the series.
The smiling Spaniard has been making steady improvements since his move up to the Master Class. He's ensured he has a strong and committed team that is now settled. Both his technician Ted Reynolds and tactician Anselmo Gamez have been there since 2015. At the end of his first season he was 13th overall, and then in 2016 he was up to 11th, but 2017 was the best season by far. He took his first step on the podium at the season opener, finishing second in Abu Dhabi. He bookended the year with another podium at the season finale in Indianapolis where he came third. Those two results helped him finish 8th overall. He was unlucky in Abu Dhabi this year, but he'll be back strong in Cannes.
With the retirement of three-time World Champion Paul Bonhomme and the godfather of the Air Race Peter Besenyei, two spots opened up in the Master Class. They were taken by 2014 Challenger Cup Champion Petr Kopfstein and Slovenian Challenger Peter Podlunsek.
Like the two pilots that went before him, Kopfstein spent the first season finding his feet and getting used to the step up. He finished 14th overall at the end of his first season. In his second Master Class season, Kopfstein had a storming year. At race three in Chiba he finsihed third and although he didn't step on the podium again, he was in the Round of 8 on six occasions and got through to the Final 4 a second time. He finished 5th overall, the highest position of any Challenger ever to take the step up.
Podlunsek looked strong in his first season, he had a fast raceplane and a solid team. In only his second race he made it through to the Round of 8. In 2017, his second season, he finished 2nd in San Diego. Unfortunately he could not repeat that feat and at the end of the season decided to retire from the Air Race to focus of on his many business commitments.
2014 World Champion Nigel Lamb hung up his gloves at the end of 2016 and with the sad loss of Hannes Arch, it was deemed that Cristian Bolton and Mika Brageot would be given the green light to move up to the Master Class.
Bolton competed in the last two races of the 2016 season to ensure 14 pilots raced. He handled himself well and looked strong. When he returned for his first full season in 2017 big things were expected. He made it to the Round of 8 on two occasions but never any further. He had technical issues with his raceplane at several races and those are still being ironed out at the start of the 2018 season. He has big plans for this year, so it's a 'watch this space'.
Brageot was the first pilot to take part in the MMP (Master Mentoring Program), where he worked under Nigel Lamb in the 2016 season, getting time in his MXS-R and learning about team management. That work seemed to pay off as he collected 24 points in his debut season. He was in the Round of 8 four times and only missed out on the Final 4 by 0.002s after racing against Matt Hall in the Round of 8 at the Lausitzring. He has started his 2018 campaign well with an 8th place finish in Abu Dhabi.
With Podlunsek retiring there was only one spot in the Master Class, which was given to British pilot Ben Murphy.
With no British pilots racing in the 2017 season, Murphy had big shoes to fill. He has set up his team like an F1 organisation, and at his first Master Class race everyone looked settled instantly. He also didn't disappoint in the track, getting through to the Round of 8 in his first race and finishing 6th. He'll be a tough competitor and all the other pilots will be watching him.
You can watch the pilots at race two in Cannes on 21-22 April, register your interest for tickets HERE.