From location to location, no two racetracks in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship are the same, and even when the action returns to a familiar spot, the layout of the Air Gates is often new. Why do the tracks keep changing, and which ones offer the biggest challenges? The sports' insiders pull back the curtain...
"The racetracks are unique at every stop because we design our tracks specifically for the contours and conditions of each setting," says Willie Cruickshank, Head of Aviation and Sport for the Red Bull Air Race. "As for why we often revise a track when we come back to a venue, that's largely because the raceplanes keep getting faster."
Raceplane velocities are now so advanced that, for safety reasons, racetrack designers increasingly build in components to scrub some speed before a big feature like a Vertical Turning Manoeuvre (VTM), so that pilots are not quite as likely to exceed maximum allowed G.
"The most critical part of any track is the VTM. The VTM provides a really good trade-off between high-G and losing energy, so you have to find that balance really well," comments Matt Hall Racing Tactician Peter Wezenbeek. "The other areas of importance are the high-G flat turns. These are very challenging because you can enter them at different angles. The entry angle can alter your racing line for the remainder of the lap, and therefore impacts your eventual time."
While track characteristics vary, racetracks also share similarities, as Max Lamb, the Tactician for French pilot Mika Brageot and his #11RACING team, explains. "In generalised terms, the tracks fall into two categories – high-speed, straight-line tracks dominated by multiple VTMs and large, 180-degree turns [e.g., Budapest] and more complex tracks with intricate racing lines, where a small deviation from the plan can have consequences many gates later," Lamb states. "From an analyst's perspective, the complex tracks provide a much more intriguing challenge to solve, whereas the performance in a VTM-heavy track largely comes down to raw piloting skill, flying to the fine margins."
Mentioning Gate 7 at May's race in Chiba, Japan, Lamb goes on, "A key feature that I'm always impressed to see a pilot pull off is when they stitch together two critical gate-to-gate sectors with a tricky transition through a gate – typically gates which require significant last-minute turns and massive steal [tight] angle before a large 180-degree turn. Taking this transition smoothly with no delays or extended time wings level is a real marker of a skilled pilot."
One notable aspect of track design can come into play even before the Start Gate. Take the unique "standing" start that every team will be trying to optimise in September's race in Wiener Neustadt and again at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October.
Benjamin Freelove, the Tactician for Japan's defending World Champion Yoshihide Muroya, describes, "A standing start race is a very special challenge. Since the track starts at a slow speed and the raceplane is actually accelerating through the run, getting a sense for the timing and airplane feel can be difficult for the pilots." Martin Sonka's Tactician, Petr Frantis, adds, "Also, it is hard to simulate the standing start races on the simulators."
In recent seasons, at least one team implemented a raceplane modification that happened to facilitate the standing start. Red Bull Air Race Technical Director Jim "Jimbo" Reed discloses, "Peter Podlunsek used downturned winglets that had him off the ground a tenth of a second or so before everyone else at the standing start races."
Reed has more to divulge. "The teams have different cooling air inlets for different types of tracks, to try to run with the minimum cooling drag possible. The smaller openings in the inlets are used for long, straight tracks, and bigger openings for tighter tracks with more turning," he outlines. "To make those changes work efficiently, you need to vary the cooling air exit in relation to the change in the inlet size as well... It is interesting to note which teams have figured that out and which haven't."
Some racetrack designs, like those in Spielberg, Austria and Ascot, UK, featured a distinctive natural component - variations in the terrain elevation. "When terrain starts getting involved, I reckon the marginal gains tend to slide towards seat-of-your-pants flying. Natural flying ability and confidence become more important than VTM precision – but not being distracted by the terrain and still nailing the VTMs is what'll separate the boys from the men," Lamb declares.
In the end, no aspect of a racetrack is too large or too small for analysis. Frantis says, "The difference between the first and last pilot is usually around one second, which means more focus on details that can bring those valuable thousands of seconds."
In their quest for constant improvement, teams often continue to learn from a racetrack even after the race is over. "My favourites are the mysterious ones, where the key is not very obvious. Germany in 2016 is a good example – we never figured out the line on a key gate combination during the race, and it drove me nuts for months," Freelove remembers. Eventually, after digging deep into the data, he thought he found the solution. Little did Freelove know that the World Championship would return to the Lausitzring racetrack for the penultimate stop of the 2017 season, where his solution worked and Muroya won the race.
"That," Freelove smiles, "was enormously satisfying." Dialing in that German racetrack narrowed Muroya's point gap from the top of the standings, and after another stellar performance at the season finale, the World Championship crown belonged to Japan for the very first time.
The Red Bull Air Race next returns to Russia's sporting capital of Kazan on 25-26 August, and the track design has been significantly changed. With the formerly open circuit curved into a new shape, which teams will adapt best? You'll have to wait and see, but you can get your tickets HERE.