As with any sport, an athlete needs to earn his or her stripes, they need to put in the hard work if they're going to succeed and make it to the top of their chosen sport.
The Red Bull Air Race is no different; the Challenger Class was developed out of a necessity to have a 'feeder' series to ensure the success of the World Championship. Steve Jones, former race pilot and current Race Director for both the Challenger and Master Class explained: "The Challenger Cup is absolutely vital for the Air Race in terms of people stepping up to the Master Class, but I think it could stand on its own. Not only is it a feeder series, but it's also a great competition. We have such a high calibre of pilot taking part."
Jones was part of the team that came up with the initial concept. He competed as an Air Race pilot from 2003-2008 and saw how it was developing into a fully-fledged motorsport. "In the early days of the Air Race we needed experienced air show pilots to cope with the strange operations, as nothing like it had been done before," said Jones. "As the sport developed it was obvious to me that we needed a more motorsport type model. We needed different formulas, where pilots arrived at the top level after working their way up and learning their trade. We needed something like a Formula 2 to create a ladder where we could feed the pilots into the Master Class or stay in a successful championship series," he added.
For a pilot to move up from the Challenger Class the first thing they need to do is get their Master Class Super Licence, and Jones is on the panel of who gains their licence, but he doesn't have a say in who goes up into the Master Class. "From my perspective, I'm not interested if they've won or finished last. I look at their flight operations and the safety aspect. I would move up a lot of Challengers if I had the say-so, because I think a lot of them are very good. Equally, the Master Class only has a limited number of spaces and disappointingly there are some that can't move up yet, but will make good Masters," said Jones.
The Challenger Class as a concept is clearly working; seven pilots have now progressed and four of them have stepped on the podium at least once. Petr Kopfstein finished 5th overall in only his second season – the highest finish of any Challenger. "I've been watching Kopfstein very closely recently and he is one of the best flyers right now. He was very smooth, yet aggressive where he needed to be and the guy is super fit, he handles the G like water off a duck's back. Cristian [Bolton] is yet to get the full potential out of his team and plane, but is flying beautifully," explained Jones.
As the Head of Training Jones, along with former race pilots Klaus Schrodt and Sergey Rakhmanin, keep a close eye on the Challenger Class pilots, and help them out where needed. "Klaus, Sergey and I all have an input. All of us are on the end of a phone, so if we see something we like, or don't like we call them, once they've landed and then at the end of the day we brief them as a group. None of us are interested in if they win or lose, so we don't give them any race tips. We're there to make sure they're developing in the correct way and that they're safe. I'm very aware that we don't need to help develop their racing skills because they're all very good. Klaus and I were very proud of them all and how they flew in Abu Dhabi," concluded Jones.