Matt Hall had been waiting 595 days for a race win and on Sunday his wait was over and at the same time he made history by becoming the first pilot to win a race in French skies. However, it's been a long and tough road for Hall and his team since his previous win in Lausitz 2016.
"Today was just as exciting as my first win ever," Hall declared.
The Aussie has made waves in the Red Bull Air Race since 2009, when he became the first newcomer in the series to stand on the overall podium (third). By 2015, Hall captured second place in the World Championship, repeating the feat in 2016.
And that's when the bottom fell out.
More precisely, that's when Hall's MXS-R raceplane developed an issue that made it necessary to source a different aircraft. At the end of the season, the team ordered a brand-new Edge 540 V3. Tense months of waiting followed before the hand-crafted beauty was ready for delivery, so Hall flew a backup raceplane at the 2017 kickoff, finishing tenth – a far cry from the two wins he had claimed in the closing races of 2016.
Unlike buying a new family car, purchasing a factory-fresh raceplane is not a turnkey solution. (Although there is reportedly a "new-raceplane smell.") Each team makes custom refinements, like winglets; settings must be scrupulous to ensure compliance with race rules; and the pilot needs plenty of flying time to get used to differences in handling, responsiveness and visibility. Hall would have to re-learn eight years of muscle memory with the MXS to become one with the Edge.
The changes did not stop there. Hall also recruited new team members, and at the top level of motorsport, it is a process to figure out optimal workflows, even with the most highly skilled colleagues. "We have a long list of things to do – it's going to take time, money and training," the pilot acknowledged.
Everything looked set for a return to winning ways in 2018, when Matt Hall Racing were confronted with the most devastating shock of all: their good friend and team technician, Ron Simard, had passed away during a stay in Panama. "At the end of last season everything was right and we had a really good team setup. Then I got a text message a couple of days before Christmas telling me that Ron had died. I didn't believe it... but it turned out to be true," Hall later shared.
There was little choice but to carry on. A bright spot was new sponsor ORGANICS by Red Bull. But while the partnership was exciting, the rebranding paint added more weight than expected. Another setback. "The tail was quite heavy, which made it sensitive to pitch, and that led to some over-Gs," Hall reported.
After fighting to a fifth-place finish at the 2018 opener, the team had two months before the Red Bull Air Race premiere in France, and they crammed it full of changes to the raceplane, including yet another paint job. Hall described, "We had it shipped to Germany, where our team there and teams from America worked on it. Then the Australian team went to Germany via the USA to put it back together so I could test fly it. Fingers crossed we have made it slightly faster, but also more manoeuvrable."
They would soon find out in Cannes. Soaring over the Côte d'Azur, Hall took third in an astounding Qualifying where the top eight teams finished within three-quarters of a second. The Aussie predicted big Race Day matchups, and his biggest came in the Final Four, against reigning World Champion Yoshihide Muroya, 2016 World Champion Matthias Dolderer, and the man at the top of the 2018 leaderboard, Michael Goulian.
Hall flew first and delivered his best time of the day. Then, after those 595 days of anticipation since his last win in 2016, the less than three minutes when his opponents were in the track must have felt like the longest wait of all. But even the fastest, Dolderer, fell short by a tiny 0.072s, and Matt Hall Racing were officially back.
"It's been a very, very challenging time emotionally, but I know Ron [Simard] has been watching with a big smile on his dial, and he'll be impressed with how Finchy [team technician David Finch] has stepped into the team. He has got the plane to race-winning qualities," Hall said from the heart.
"It's been a long, hard transition from our MXS to our new Edge, but now with a new team, this new raceplane and a new sponsor, we're feeling set to make a run for the World Championship", Hall stated. "I think it is going to be a great year".