Matt Hall's second place in the 2018 Red Bull Air Race World Championship marked the fourth overall podium of his career. It also certified a comeback for Matt Hall Racing after a tough year in 2017 when, among other challenges, raceplane issues forced a switch to a completely unfamiliar Edge 540 V3. It takes a team effort to climb back to the top ranks in any major motorsport, and here, Australia's only Red Bull Air Race contenders provide insights on how they did it.
"We've had a lot of team changes over the last two years. A huge amount. Some were at my decision, some were unfortunately out of my hands," says Hall. "But you can't be competitive at the highest level of a World Championship without a great team. There's no doubt in my mind about that."
The newest member of Matt Hall Racing, Technician David Finch, brought more than 20 years of aviation experience to his first race at February's 2018 season opener. Hall and Finch had been talking about working together domestically, but after the team's previous technician, Ron Simard, passed away unexpectedly, the pilot invited "Finchy" to join the team at the Red Bull Air Race. Only about two weeks later, the technician was on his way to the Abu Dhabi kickoff.
"That was the first time I'd seen the plane," Finch remembers. "Initially it was just about getting my bearings on the mechanics of the aircraft. It has a fairly complicated electrical system and lots of data points, that sort of thing. And then I focused on finalising some of the excellent modifications that had been done by Ron and just needed a final touch."
It wasn't long before the technician and his whole family, including six children, moved to Lake Macquarie, where Hall is based.
"It's been a whirlwind," Finch acknowledges. "Most recently we've been looking at ways to develop the aircraft aerodynamically to make it that little bit faster."
When Team Coordinator Andrew Musgrove came onboard a year earlier, it had also been an initiation by fire, as the team launched into the building year where they would introduce their Edge raceplane.
"We were flying a borrowed plane at the first stop of 2017, by the third race I was introducing a new technician, and by the sixth race we were doing that again with Ron. Then Ron passed away and we had Finchy at the beginning of this year. So we had a lot of rapid changes, and it was sink or swim for me," recalls Musgrove, who has a background as a competitive athlete in addition to substantial expertise in public relations and communications. "But it was good, because I learned the process inside and out in just a few races."
He continues, "Matt is great to work for, because he makes sure we always know our roles and responsibilities, which I think is a bit of his military influence. We've seemed to find a really nice balance, and it's like clockwork. Whether things go well or whether they don't, we're very good at working out why things are happening a certain way and just moving forward and putting egos aside."
Matt Hall Racing (l to r) Andrew Musgrove; Matt Hall; David Finch; Peter Wezenbeek ©Predrag Vuckovic/RBAR
The team member who has been with Hall the longest is Tactician Peter Wezenbeek, an expert in engineering as well as data acquisition and management who contributed to a pair of World Championships won by Fernando Alonso on the Renault Formula 1 Team. Wezenbeek signed on when the Red Bull Air Race rebooted with new regulations in 2014. "In my experience with racing drivers, there's a big difference [among them] in how they interact and their knowledge of the technical side. Those who have that deep understanding of the systems always respond well to technical improvements, and Matt is one of them," Wezenbeek states. "Fernando Alonso also had that kind of understanding. He was very clever, and I like that."
Wezenbeek personally developed Matt Hall Racing's data analysis systems and simulator in close collaboration with the pilot. "It's important for me that we do exactly what he wants to see, but it's not just the technical stuff," the tactician emphasises. "I think the most important thing is the team. Building a team that works together has been the biggest journey for us. This team is definitely more than the sum of four people."
Hall nods in agreement. "I've been racing now for 10 years, and this is the best harmony we've ever had in the team," the pilot affirms. "I have 100 per cent confidence that nothing will be left out or forgotten, so I go to bed relaxed, sleep well, get up in the morning and can't wait to fly my plane. It's a great situation to be in."