Like a shark in the sky

With synthetic shark skin wings, Hannes Arch hopes for another hot run in 2014

Hannes Arch navigates an Air Gate in Abu Dhabi, 2014

Austrian pro Hannes Arch has become the first pilot to apply shark skin to his wings.

The modification comes in light of the new rules and regulations changes for the 2014 season. With race teams no longer permitted to make any alterations to the standardised race-tuned engines or propellers, the focus has shifted to perfecting airframe aerodynamics to ensure that they create as little drag as possible.

"I'm not worried about the engine rules," says a confident Hannes Arch. "You have to focus on where you can improve the most. It used to be the engines and power but now it's the aerodynamics. We did some small modifications, like adding shark skin. It should reduce drag. We'll see how it works."

The shark skin added to Arch's plane is a synthetic replica that mimics the animal's skin surface texture. The original view on aerodynamics was 'the sleeker the better'. However, in recent years, thanks to extensive studies and trials, this stance has since changed. It is now believed that just the right amount of roughness is in fact better.

A shark's skin is the natural embodiment of perfect aerodynamic efficiency and streamlining. A shark slices through water with impeccable ease and speed. From afar, its skin appears smooth and sleek to the touch. But on closer inspection, shark skin is in fact made up of jagged scales covered with longitudinal ridges. These ridges help to channel the water along the shark's body and prevent eddies that produce drag, therefore speeding up the shark's passage through the water.

The same phenomenon also applies to aircraft aerodynamics, with synthetic shark skin helping to reduce air surface flow resistance when moving at speed. Another added bonus is that a shark skin coating also helps to increase an aircraft's fuel efficiency.

It is perhaps too early to quantify the contribution that the shark skin has made to Arch's performance so far this season, but with margins between pilot's lap times tighter than ever, each modification could make or break every bid for the podium.

Arch claimed a second place finish and 9 points in the UAE capital. He also smashed the course record twice on race day before just being topped by his British rival, Paul Bonhomme on his final run. It seems the three-year gap combined with the changes to the engines and format has done nothing to weaken Paul Bonhomme's prowess in the racetrack.

The 2014 season appears to have also opened up the field to new title contenders, with Canada's Pete McLeod claiming third place – his first ever podium – and Australia's Matt Hall taking 4th.

But for now, Arch remains confident in his ability. "I was fast, I know that. So I'm not worried," he says.

With his aggressive style, razor-sharp reactions and now shark skin wings, Hannes Arch is set to take the 2014 season by storm. Be sure to catch him at the second stage of the 2014 World Championship in Rovinj, Croatia on April 12.