June 2017 saw the Red Bull Air Race World Championship return to Japan for the third time in the sport's history. And even though it was only the third race of the season, it was already proving to be a dramatic year.
Muroya was the man to beat however, he was coming into his home race off the back of a win in San Diego and had won in Chiba in 2016, so the championship leaders were watching him closely. With only two races in the championship completed we had seen six different pilots stand on the podium – the competition was wide open.
The pressure was raised when the first two Free Practice sessions had to be cancelled due to adverse weather, but FP3 and 4 offered up some interesting surprises.
FP3 saw Matt Hall, in only his second outing with his new raceplane, top the timesheet with a time of 54.823s. Closest to Hall was Dolderer, just 0.132s behind. The top six pilots all finished within one second of each other, building up the excitement instantly.
Chiba 2017 race highlights
Martin Sonka was on top in FP4, with a quicker time of 54.371s, Dolderer was second again and Mikael Brageot was third – in only his third Master Class race. Petr Kopfstein was fourth and the home race hero, Muroya, was fifth.
Qualifying was a tense affair with Pete McLeod coming out fastest. Just 0.047s behind was Dolderer, with Sonka in third and Muroya fourth. It was getting even closer, the top 11 pilots finished within 1.5s of each other, setting up a Round of 14 to remember.
Hall breezed past Nicolas Ivanoff in Heat 1 after Ivanoff picked up a two second penalty. Muroya, in front of his home fans, was in the most exciting heat. He was flying against Kopfstein, who flew first. The Czech pilot set a time of 55.597s. Muroya was behind at the first two split times, but was clawing it back. He crossed the Start/Finish Gate just 0.007s in front. Kopfstein's time was enough to see him go through as the fastest loser. The other pilots through to the Round of 8 included Kirby Chambliss, Martin Sonka, Michael Goulian, Matthias Dolderer and Pete McLeod.
Muroya was to fly first in the Round of 8 and collect a penalty at Gate 7 for incorrect level flying. This meant Matt Hall had to fly cleanly and would be through. He was well ahead until the second from last gate, when he was penalised for climbing in the gate. Those two seconds meant he was 0.331s behind Muroya and out of the race.
Chambliss exceeded the G-limit and handed his heat to Kopfstein, who was into the Final 4 for the first time in his Air Race career. Pete McLeod made the same mistake, giving Dolderer a pass into the final round as well.
The final Round of 8 heat saw Martin Sonka go up against Michael Goulian. It was a close run thing with Sonka coming out on top by just 0.118s.
Chiba 2017 Race Day gallery
Muroya was first to fly in the Final 4 and set a solid time of 55.288s. Kopfstein was second and stopped the clock 0.558s behind the Japanese pilot. The 2016 World Champion was third and looking good. He was quicker at all the split times and looking to take his first win of the season until Gate 11, where he hit the pylon. Dolderer was flying well, but not quick enough to gain back those three seconds.
Sonka, looking to claim his second win of the season flew last. He was quicker than Muroya at the first split, but a mistake at Gate 4 saw him penalised for incorrect level flying, handing the win to Muroya. Sonka and Dolderer would have finished in first and second without their penalties. Muroya made it two wins on the bounce and Petr Kopfstein claimed his first ever podium finish in second with Sonka in third.
The standings after three races saw Sonka and Muroya tied on 30 points each, with Dolderer in third on 23 points and Kopfstein in fourth with 17. There was everything to fight for as the teams were heading to Budapest for race four.
Chiba 2017 final result