French pilot Francois Le Vot was named winner of the inaugural Challenger Cup today in Abu Dhabi after edging past Daniel Ryfa of Sweden by just 1/100th of a second.
The six Challenger Class pilots, who have been carefully selected to train towards qualifying for the elusive Superlicence, took to the skies over Abu Dhabi's Corniche in front of excited crowds at the first race of 2014.
"It's all down to technique and I had to really fight against my natural aerobatic style," admitted Le Vot. "I call our race trainers 'lanistas' which is the name for those who taught gladiators... it's because they have prepared us so well that we can fly in this environment."
With all pilots flying the Extra 330LX, pilot skill was under scrutiny as they navigated the aerial course over the sparkling blue water of the Arabian Gulf. Winning by just the smallest fraction of a second, Le Vot became the first Challenger Class pilot to stand atop the podium. He was closely followed by Ryfa who narrowly missed out on the top spot but was pleased to have made a memorable debut in Abu Dhabi. He believes his raceplane was a big factor in his success. "The planes are really great and are brand new," he said. "I'm used to flying Russian aeroplanes so this is a big change for me."
In third, Spanish pilot Juan Velarde was equally enthused about the day's result and demonstrated that smooth flying was necessary to make the top three. A pylon hit on his initial run was followed by an improved performance where he flew without any major issues. He acknowledged that it's a big step moving into the world's fastest motorsport series. " Emotions definitely played a big part today for me," he said. "I was a bit nervous and the fact that I hit a pylon on my first run within ten seconds was a sign."
Adding his own thoughts, Challenger Race Director Steve Jones said, "I want to say thanks to all six pilots today; it's a marvellous start to this competition and we ultimately aim to introduce these pilots into the Master Class in the future. It's hard to prepare for the Red Bull Air Race as there is nothing else like it, so by creating the Challenger Cup we can start to prepare them."
The Challenger Cup is the official pre-training programme for future Master Class pilots and there are currently a total of ten hopefuls that will get the chance to fly throughout the 2014 season. "It ensures we have a very high standard and that the pilots can perform at this level," explains former World Champion Mike Mangold, who has also evaluated pilot performance at a series of rigorous training camps over the past year.
Each of the Challenger pilots will fly in at least three races over the 2014 season, with the fastest six moving on to a final in China that will name the best pilot as the winner of the very first Challenger Cup.