The 2017 season kicked off in fine style with the traditional opener over the waters of the Corniche in Abu Dhabi. 14 pilots arrived in the United Arab Emirates, all with a chance of becoming World Champion and all of them wanted to start their season in the best form.
As it was the first race of the season the pilots were given three extra training sessions before Free Practice began. These early sessions are for pilots to test any changes they have made to the raceplane, get used to the high-Gs of racing, and sort out any final preparations for the season ahead.
The Czech pilots dominated the three training sessions, with Petr Kopfstein – in only his second season – finishing first in two of them and second in the third. In the final training session Martin Sonka topped the timesheet.
Some pilots would contest that training wouldn't really matter as it only counts on Race Day, but the time had been set and it was up to the others to beat.
Three different pilots topped the Free Practice sessions. Kirby Chambliss, 2016 World Champion Matthias Dolderer and Sonka again were on the top of the FP timesheets.
Friday saw Qualifying and when the action truly began. It was time to see if all the preparation in the offseason had worked. First to fly was Mikael Brageot, in his first ever Master Class race, he set a respectable time of 53.326s, which would be good enough to see him 7th on the timesheet. Fellow new Master Class pilot, Cristian Bolton set a time that saw him 8th, one below Brageot, meaning the two would go head-to-head in the Round of 14.
Abu Dhabi 2017 race highlights
Sonka topped Quali with a time of 52.097s, the fastest in race week. Michael Goulian was second and Kirby Chambliss third. It was a close run thing with the top nine pilots all finishing within two seconds of each other.
Yoshihide Muroya was the first pilot into the track on Race Day. He was up against Juan Velarde. The Japanese pilot exceeded the G-limit and was given a DNF. That gave Juan Velarde a walk over into the Round of 8. The defending World Champion Dolderer was up against Pete McLeod. He beat the Canadian by 1.080s, but McLeod had done enough to go through as the fastest loser.
Bolton beat Brageot to go through to the Round of 8 for the first time in his career. Other pilots through to the second round were 2016 Abu Dhabi race winner, Nicolas Ivanoff, François Le Vot, Michael Goulian – he beat Matt Hall, who was flying a 'rental' plane while he waited for his new Edge 540 to be finished – and Martin Sonka.
The Round of 8 was a close affair with McLeod beating Goulian by a mere 0.008s. Sonka and Dolderer easily flew past their opponents by more than a second and Juan Velarde beat his fellow 2015 Challenger Class graduate to cement his first ever Final 4.
McLeod was first to fly in the Final 4 and set a competitive time of 54.632s. This was the time the other three would have to beat if they wanted to claim the first win of 2017. Sonka was second into the track. Sonka had been the most consistent pilot all week and his Final 4 run was perfect. He was almost 0.5s ahead at the first split time. By the end of his run he was 1.493s faster than McLeod. Dolderer was close to Sonka and finished with a net time of 53.227s, which would've seen him in second, but a penalty at the penultimate gate saw him collect two seconds and pushed him down to third with one pilot still to fly.
Velarde was the last to fly and although he was behind Sonka from the first split, he pushed on and finished with a time of 54.166s, placing him second for his first ever podium.
It was an exhilarating start to the season and began what was going to be a rollercoaster of a ride in the 2017 Red Bull Air Race World Championship.