Putting up the Air Gates for the Red Bull Air Race can be almost as challenging as flying the racetrack itself. The most difficult setups are on water.
"Most of our challenges have to do with nature," says Marko van Es, who as Head of Racetrack Operations leads the setup at every stop with his colleague Ivanka Kösters. He has seen a lot since he first got involved in the sport back in 2005.
"We had a seven-metre tide difference every six hours in London, a tropical cyclone in Japan and the biggest storm in 40 years at Abu Dhabi, to name a few," Van Es recalls. "Then there were sea lions that wanted to eat submerged cables in San Francisco, and bull sharks in the river at Perth – while we were working underwater!"
Marko van Es and Ivanka Kösters, the heads of Racetrack Operations
What goes into setting up a water-based racetrack of Air Gates, with the towering pylons perched on floating barges?
"On land, you can mark the location and it will stay there. When the racetrack is on water, everything is moving," points out Technical Team Captain Peter Maaskant. "We have different depths, sometimes high tides and low tides, and on the sea we can have big waves, big winds. These influence the position of the barges, and we work with anchors and steel wires to keep them in place."
The base for just one single pylon in the racetrack chicane requires connecting three 40-foot (12-metre) container barges, and the anchors that hold the barges in place can weigh as much as 1,000 kilograms each. When the 25-metre pylons are inflated, they sometimes act like sails, creating a force of up to 1.5 tons on the anchor and wire cable. Amazingly, the team does all the anchoring work – using a minimum of six kilometers of cable at every stop – by hand.
To help make sure things stay where they belong, the Red Bull Air Race uses an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) at many locations. The compact unit can go down to 300 meters, sending back live images so that the crew can assess the anchor situation within minutes.
Protecting the environment in Cannes
No two stops are alike. The floor of the Bay of Cannes in France is largely covered by a seagrass vital to the ecosystem. So the team first got a sonar scan to identify where they could place conventional anchors without disturbing sea life. Then they replaced 60 percent of the steel anchor wires with 18-millimeter ropes made of a super-strong fibre (breaking load of 30,000 kilograms), and further, they made sure the ropes did not touch the grass. The team arrived at Cannes a full six weeks before the race in order to carefully mark the locations for the nine Air Gates, using the ROV and precise GPS coordinates. Just delivering all the equipment took a week, because 42 trucks were needed to bring it all in, but there was room for only one truck at a time in the Cannes marina.
The open-water challenge of Chiba
When it comes to setup, a racetrack on open water, like Chiba, Japan, is the most demanding of all – even when there is not a cyclone.
"Chiba is very unpredictable in regard to weather. With a little wind, the waves easily get to two-and-a-half meters, which is dangerous for the barges so close to shore," Van Es explains. "At that location we work with 42 of the 1,000-kilogram anchors. Six thousand meters of 18-millimeter steel wire are used for the anchors, and between the wire and the anchor we have a 10-meter chain weighing 750 kilograms. If we do not use the chain, the wires will break!"
A race against the clock in Budapest
The iconic Red Bull Air Race location of Budapest, Hungary is not a piece of cake, either, despite its inland setting on the Danube River. Whereas at another classic stop, Abu Dhabi, a team of nine people using three boats takes eight days to build the racetrack, which then stays in place for the duration of the event, in Budapest the track is set up in just 54 minutes every day, and then removed again within 30 minutes of the last flight each afternoon – all to facilitate shipping traffic on the Danube.
Van Es describes, "This is possible only because we work with a crew from the Hungarian Army. We build the track with 85 people and 32 boats, using five 45-kilogram anchors per Air Gate. That's as opposed to four anchors of 500 kilograms per gate in Abu Dhabi. It's tricky because these small anchors in Hungary have to handle the forces of the current and the wind load on the pylons."
With the Budapest race coming up fast, Van Es and his team are keeping an eye on the forecast. "In Budapest we have to deal with not only the heavy current but also water levels that are different every year. The challenges of the race, and the racetrack, will always depend on how much rain has fallen upstream and the winds on the given day," he says. Like the 14 elite race teams vying for the World Championship, the Race Operations team has to be ready for anything.
See the pilots fly in the sport's most iconic over-water racetrack when the Red Bull Air Race returns to Budapest on 23-24 June. Get your tickets HERE.