Three-time World Champion Paul Bonhomme sums up the 2018 Red Bull Air Race World Championship with his insights on the pilots, the teams and a thrilling season...
Cristian Bolton/Cristian Bolton Racing
Team Bolton are still playing catch up since their overnight promotion into the Master Class at the end of 2016. With the lack of offseason downtime since then to modify the aeroplane seriously and with the elongated calendar, Cristian and his team have done well to post some decent results. The sixth and fifth place in Budapest and Indianapolis respectively were the highlights of the year and after I'd seen his free practice and Quali times and flying in Fort Worth, I thought we were in for a treat at the last race of the year. Cristian's net time in his head-to-head against the then Championship leader Goulian would have comfortably propelled him into the Round of 8 but for the over-G at Gate 4 and the incorrect levels at 7 and 9. The colder temperature on the Sunday gave the air a bit more bite which didn't help with the over-G mistake and the new north westerly wind added to the chance of an incorrect level. Cristian is on the up and I am sure we'll see some solid results in 2019.
Petr Kopfstein/Team Spielberg
Another year of learning for Petr and his run of ninth places was a good sign. He won't think so but, as I've said before, it means he was always the fastest of the guys who didn't make it through to the Round of 8. Likewise, his fifth in Austria was a good sign as he was the fastest not to make it into the Final 4. However the season ended with Petr finding a pylon at Gate 7 during the Round of 14. That pylon hit was his only Race Day penalty of the year, an overall indication of clean flying throughout the year. He wasn't the only pilot to find problems with the wind changing from the southerly we had all week to a north-westerly on Race Day but being able to adapt to changing conditions is a must for any race pilot.
Matthias Dolderer/Matthias Dolderer Racing
Who'd have thought that Matthias would be 12th at the end of the 2018 season? He should have been much higher up the table. His Qualifying record is excellent: first in Quali in Abu Dhabi, Kazan and Fort Worth, a second in Austria and a fourth place in Chiba and Cannes. Why then does it not work on Race Day? Maybe the team need to set up a solid system of routine for EVERY day of flying, ideally using the same system that they use for this year's Quali (I would guess a lot of that is the mental preparation for Matthias). Maybe it's the pressure of the head-to-head that needs to be removed somehow as you can train your brain to "relax" in certain situations. The Team have proved they can do it on Quali day, they need to take those skills (with the tweaks required for tactics) to Race Day.
François Le Vot/FLV Racing Team 12
If a sense of humour was the primary judging criteria then François would be World Champion. We love his view on life and the Air Race... and his relaxed approach is the perfect antidote to the stresses of the racing environment. He started well in Abu Dhabi (7th) and the middle of the year was also memorable (two sixths and a fifth place) however the last two races saw some mistakes in the Round of 14. In the last race in Fort Worth, François joined the "fun at Gate 7 club" and clobbered the pylon due to the new Race Day wind. I'm looking forward to watching him race in 2019.
Nicolas Ivanoff/Team Hamilton
I thought the team's third place in Indianapolis was the start of a resurgence for 2019. Nico was in the group of possible spoilers who could get in the way of the championship chasers at the last race in Fort Worth but the rhythm seemed to go missing. Even the Free Practice times were off the pace and disappointingly he finished ninth (but that was after flying against the in-form Sonka in the Round of 14). For certain the wing-tip damage in Abu Dhabi disturbed the flow for the team and they were then playing catch-up for most of the year.
Juan Velarde/Team Velarde
Without doubt, Kazan was the race to remember for Team Velarde in 2018. The Final 4 finish in Russia – only half a second off the winner's pace – was a spectacular achievement. Likewise, when you look at other results, he was only a hair's breadth away from some good finishes. Indy was a prime example... one incorrect level at the descent gate (13) stopped Juan getting into the Final 4 and had that happened, his times in the Indy track stood a good chance of a podium finish. Alas, the small mistakes are the most costly. Lots of good points for Juan to consider and learn from this year so he can start the 2019 season with optimism.
Pete McLeod/Team McLeod
In Indianapolis, Pete was back to his trademark smooth, fast style. He took on the role of "Head Spoiler" by beating Goulian in the Round of 14 and then Matt Hall in the round of 8. Goulian escaped the damage by being fastest loser and then was the only pilot to stand in the way of a win for Pete who finished second. It was a spectacular result for the Canadian and hence we expected a stronger finish in Fort Worth. Pete collected Gate 7 (as did many others) on Race Day and hence finished 11th. We need to see more of the Pete we saw in Indy this year. We know he can fly fast and he needs to find that flow and rhythm consistently for next year.
Ben Murphy/Blades Racing Team
Overall a fantastic year for the Master's rookie of 2018. To finish in the Final 4 in the last two races of the season in your first year is truly spectacular. The team has loads of good learning points from this year and also a couple of "let's not do that again" moments but as far it goes for a first year in the Masters, it's been fantastic.
Kirby Chambliss/Team Chambliss
After his two wins in the middle of the 2017 season, we thought Kirby would bounce back and swoop up all the prizes this year. A strong start (third in Abu Dhabi) was followed by a slower mid-season, which was brightened up by the third places in Kazan and Fort Worth. The culprits to the mid-season form were those pesky mistakes in the Round of 14. We've heard other pilots talk of the relief of getting through that first flight on Race Day and it is true. There is no warm up flight or practice in the track before you're going hell-for-leather in a high-G track. The mental preparation and visualisation is absolutely key to making that a success in the first run. Once you've got that out of the way, the Round of 8 and Final 4 (if you get that far) can be less nerve-wracking as you've already flown that day. Having said that, his podium finish in Fort Worth was a great way to finish the year.
Yoshihide Muroya/Team Falken
You could argue that Yoshi was unlucky in Fort Worth. He flew beautifully in the Round of 8, posted a spectacular 52.5s, which was then beaten by Chambliss. In this heat, Chambliss and Muroya flew the two fastest times of the day but one had to go home. This is the one area where the head-to-head is unpopular... having flown the second fastest time of the entire day (no mean feat with the new wind conditions), Yoshi had to miss the final round because Kirby chose that moment to fly faster. Yoshi flew faster than the three pilots on the podium did all day... it kind of summed up Yoshi's year. A rollercoaster of results but he'll be back next year with a vengeance and it'll be great to watch.
A truly spectacular year for Mika and he may be slightly frustrated with just the one podium – he shouldn't be. For someone flying in only his second Master Class season, finishing fourth overall is well worth celebrating. The really encouraging statistic for Mika is within all Race Day heats of this year, he has only collected two penalties: an incorrect level in Abu Dhabi and an over-G in Kazan. Those stats for a pilot's second season are amazing. Yes, you could argue that anyone can fly safe and avoid penalties but he's finished fourth in the championship. To collect points you need to avoid penalties. You can put a lot of effort into shaving past pylons to save a tenth of a second but if you collect a two second penalty doing it, it's a waste of time!
Michael Goulian/Team Goulian
Let's talk about rhythm... athletes all over the world talk about getting into a rhythm and using that as a springboard to success. That rhythm needs to be protected and sadly for Mikey it got disturbed on the Friday of the last race in Free Practice 1. He'd hit Gate 7 and damaged his wingtip and as a result of that damage, he had to sit out FP2, which then meant starting the next practice session on the Saturday morning on the back foot. Quali followed and not surprisingly, after missing the valuable Friday afternoon session and all the associated data and video evidence, he was slightly off the pace and qualified 9th. In the Round of 14, the engine joined in with the fun and an injector decided to find some dirt... the most tiny piece of debris here can ruin your day (measured in microns) and the rhythm took another hit. Yes, he won his heat, but his time was the slowest of the R14 winners, which put him up against the in-form Sonka in the Round of 8. Even his net time was off the pace and hence his 8th place in the race lost that lead he held before the weekend started. In summary, that pylon hit on Friday morning and a tiny piece of dirt disturbed a Championship lead. It's a hard blow and the team will know why he hit that pylon... but it adds weight to the theory that yes, you have to take risks but if you can fly clean, even if you fly slowly, you stand a much better chance of keeping your rhythm for the entire weekend..
Matt Hall/Matt Hall Racing
Let's talk about Fort Worth first... Matt flew a tactically perfect race and to finish behind the winner by just a third of a second in the last race of the year with so much at stake, was a demonstration of superb flying under pressure. Don't forget, he's been there before so it would have been so easy for him to try too hard. The biggest debrief points for the year must surely be the pylon hits, dare I say, the unnecessary pilot hits in Kazan and Indianapolis. In Kazan, he clobbered Gate 12. Yes, it was busy there but not so busy to risk collecting three seconds of penalty. That threw him out in the Round of 8 (of interest, his net time would have won the race). In Indianapolis, he found Gate 9, that tricky gate in the left turn before the chicane. I say tricky but I bet Matt would kick himself for finding it (he was the only pilot to hit a pylon on Race Day). Once again, he went home after the Round of 8 but as before, his net time would have won the Final 4. I know hindsight is a wonderful thing and I know that it is easy to comment from my armchair, but without those pylons, Matt could have wrapped it all up in Indy and finished with 91 points... "would've could've should've" in 2018, maybe seal it in 2019?
Martin Sonka/Red Bull Team Sonka
Whatever slowed Martin down in the Round of 14 in Indianapolis (we think engine settings) was a perfectly timed reminder that the race doesn't forgive mistakes. It was just the nudge they needed to get their act together and "nail" the last race in Fort Worth. Team Sonka came to Fort Worth with only one thing in mind and that was evident from the mood in the hangar during the weekend. As for the race: he flew a 52.764s in the Round of 14, then a 53.031s in the Round of 8 and then topped it off with a 52.796s in the Final 4. To add perspective, his "slower" 53.031s was after he'd heard Goulian do a 58.5s... so in other words, he "backed off" by a third of a second. A wise move not to back off too far because we have seen that disturb the Race Day rhythm. We talk about consistency but to fly three times, in a new wind condition (don't forget the Race Day wind was totally different to Quali day and before) and fly virtually the same time whilst trying not to think of a World Championship is exceptional flying. Then consider the four wins in the last five races. Superb!