The best thing about the start of any season is nobody knows what's going to happen at the opening race, so when the teams arrived in Abu Dhabi at the end of January 2018 for the first race, the hangars were alive with rumours of mods, team changes and what the pilots had been doing to improve. Abu Dhabi was going to be a race to remember.
As is tradition with the season opener the pilots get extra training sessions in the track before Free Practice. Normally it's to shake the cobwebs loose, make sure the plane is running correctly and get G-ready for the race ahead.
There was drama from the very start though when Nicolas Ivanoff clipped a pylon and his new winglet detached from the raceplane. He had to return to base and his plane had to retire from the race. He was able to fly a replacement plane, but it wasn't competitive and he couldn't repeat his 2016 performance of taking the win.
Free Practice saw the usual suspects near the top of the sessions with Matthias Dolderer, Michael Goulian and Pete McLeod all topping a timingsheet each.
Dolderer took Qualifying with Goulian in second place, just 0.597s behind. The 2017 champion Yoshihide Muroya looked to still be on form and was third, with Mika Brageot – in only his second Master Class season – fourth. Matt Hall finished 14th after exceeding maximum-G and was given a DNF, setting him up for a head to head against Dolderer.
Abu Dhabi 2018 Race Day Gallery
The first head on Race Day saw Kirby Chambliss up against François Le Vot and both put in blistering times, Chambliss' was the second fastest of the round and Le Vot's was the fourth – it was enough to see Le Vot through as the fastest loser.
The first big surprise of the round was Ben Murphy, in only his first Master Class race, knocking out Juan Velarde. Both pilots picked up two seconds worth of penalties for over-Gs, but Murphy crossed the Finish Gate 0.638s ahead of his rival.
Defending Champion Muroya went through without a problem when Pete McLeod exceeded the G-limit and was given a DNF. Dolderer's day also ended early for the same reason, which put Matt Hall through to the Round of 8.
Debutant Ben Murphy was unable to move out of the Round of 8 when he lost out to Muroya by just 0.879s. This meant the Final 4 was to consist of Michael Goulian (who beat Hall), Martin Sonka, Kirby Chambliss and Yoshihide Muroya.
Goulian flew first in the Final 4 and set a blistering time of 53.695s. Sonka was second through the Start Gate and flew cleanly and smoothly, but he couldn't come close to catching Goulian. His time of 54.650s was almost a second slower, but it was enough to see him in third. After the race, Sonka was given a DQ for a technical infringement and dropped to fourth place overall.
Goulian's compatriot Kirby Chambliss was third into the track and due to a late pull up found himself behind from the first split time. He couldn't claw any of that time back and finished fourth but was moved up to third due to Sonka's misfortune.
Goulian had to wait to see if he'd done enough as he watched the World Champion go last. Yoshihide Muroya had to make a correction in his run as he headed to Gate 4. It didn't slow him down too much, but was enough to see him behind Goulian and put him in second.
It was Goulian's first career win in nine years and saw him top of the leader board for the first time in his career – it set up what was to be a fantastic and tense season.