Twelve years since it was officially launched, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has become globally renowned as the fastest and most exhilarating motorsport series on the planet. Devised by the Red Bull sports think-tank, the initial goal was to create the most advanced aerial challenge the world had ever seen; what they got far exceeded their original expectations.
The Red Bull Air Race World Championship quickly became a visual spectacle unlike any other. A combination of high speed, low altitude and extreme manoeuvrability makes the sport accessible only to the world's most exceptional pilots.
The specially designed aerial racetracks used are the result of extensive research and evaluation. The unique inflatable pylons, which form the Air Gates, were first developed in 2002 and have evolved year-on-year into the sophisticated design currently used. They are constructed to be robust and safe in the event of a pylon hit and can be repaired and re-inflated within minutes.
Devised by a Red Bull sports think-tank in 2002, the Red Bull Air Race had its inaugural season as a World Series in 2003. Being a visual spectacle unlike any other, it quickly garnered the interest of fans and pilots alike. Peter Besenyei of Hungary, one of the masterminds behind its inception, was appropriately the first victor.
The Red Bull Air Race World Series returned in 2004, this time throwing 11 pilots into the mix. After a tense three-race season spanning the USA, UK and Hungary, it was American Kirby Chambliss who emerged victorious, followed by Peter Besenyi in second, and Brit Steve Jones and Klaus Schrodt of Germany in joint third.
In 2005, ten hand-picked pilots competed in seven full-throttle races around the world, with stops in the UK, the USA and Europe. American Mike Mangold, a former US Air Force fighter pilot, was the dominant force in that first season, winning five of the seven races. Mangold won 36 World Championship points while Peter Besenyei took second with 32 points and American Kirby Chambliss was third with 21 points.
In 2006, eight races took place with 11 pilots competing. This year Chambliss was in a class of his own, winning four of the eight races. Chambliss won 38 World Championship points while Besenyei once again came second with 35 points and Mangold third with 30 points.
In 2007, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship was expanded to ten races with 13 pilots, including the first-ever stop in South America in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Newcomers Hannes Arch of Austria and Sergey Rakhmanin of Russia joined the championship. It was a thrilling battle for the title between Mangold and Great Britain's Paul Bonhomme with each winning three races. They both ended up even with 47 points but in the end Mangold clinched the title by a tie-breaker. Besenyei was third with 31 points.
In 2008 there were eight races and 12 pilots. Austria's Hannes Arch, in only his second season, became the first European to win the World Championship. Bonhomme, eager to avenge his defeat in 2007, was dominant through the first half of the season, claiming three wins. But he struggled to maintain his form in the second half of the 2008 Red Bull Air Race World Championship. Arch won only two races – Budapest and Porto – but stood on the podium in seven of the eight races to finish with 61 points to Bonhomme's 54. Chambliss claimed third place with 46 points.
In 2009, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship added four newcomers making a total of 15 pilots, including the first Asian, the first Canadian and the first Australian – Yoshi Muroya, Pete McLeod and Matt Hall respectively.
Also new was Matthias Dolderer of Germany. Arch took an early lead and held his position until the fourth race when Bonhomme moved ahead and claimed three wins overall leading him to win his elusive first title.
2009 was, without a doubt, the most competitive season in race history, with eight of the 15 pilots getting on the podium at least once and 11 getting at least one top five finish.
In 2010, Bonhomme matched Mangold's record by becoming the second pilot to claim two titles. He finished each of the six races in the top three, two of which were victories. Arch came a close second having won four of the six races but lost out to Bonhomme due to an 11th place finish in the first stage of the season in Abu Dhabi. Britain's other pro pilot, Nigel Lamb, came in third place with three runner-up placings and three fourth places.
In 2014, after a three-year hiatus, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship returned better than ever. The return hailed a new era for the Red Bull Air Race, with the introduction of standardised engines and propellers, as well as improvements to the rules and regulations, meaning there was an even greater emphasis on pilot skill than ever before. This enabled pilots Pete McLeod, Yoshihide Muroya and Martin Sonka to claim their first ever Red Bull Air Race podiums.
When the 2014 season kicked off, it seemed like everything was going to pick up right where the 2010 season left off, with two-time World Champion Paul Bonhomme and 2008 World Champion Hannes Arch vying for the title once again. But there was a shift in the wind during the third race in Putrajaya, Malaysia when Bonhomme suffered an uncharacteristic fifth place finish and Arch failed to take the top spot ahead of Nigel Lamb, who claimed his first ever race win. From that race onwards, Lamb never failed to make the podium, and with a renewed spirit he quickly began to rise in the rankings. It all came to a head in Spielberg, Austria, when the three pilots clashed for overall 2014 title. However, in the end it was Lamb who emerged the victor, becoming the 2014 Red Bull Air Race World Champion.
Another addition to the 2014 season was the Challenger Cup. 11 pilots took part in the Challenger Cup, six of them earned their place in the winner takes all final. In a breathtaking final round Petr Kopfstein was crowned the inaugural Challenger Cup Champion. The Challenger Cup also saw François Le Vot and Juan Velarde move up to the Master Class.
The 2015 season saw a tense battle for the World Champion title between Britain's Bonhomme and Australia's Hall. Bonhomme started the season as he meant to go on, claiming his 16th career win at the first stop of the season in Abu Dhabi. Japan also hosted its first ever Red Bull Air Race, with the pilots flying for maximum World Championship points in front of a 120,000 strong crowd. The Hall/Bonhomme battle continued mid-season, with Hall claiming his inaugural race win in Spielberg, keeping up the pressure on Bonhomme. The Austrian stop also saw Kirby Chambliss make a long-awaited return to the podium, claiming his first top three spot since 2010.
The 2015 season came to a spectacular close once again in Las Vegas, with Bonhomme ultimately claiming a record third World Championship title. But it was also a bittersweet finish to the season for Red Bull Air Race legend Peter Besenyei, who announced his retirement, capping a career spanning 10 seasons, eight race wins and a World Championship title. Paul Bonhomme also announced his retirement from the sport, leaving behind a legacy as the most successful pilot in the history of the series.
In the Challenger Cup, two new pilots joined the mix, with Florian Berger and Francis Barros testing their mettle against Mikael Brageot, Peter Kopfstein, Daniel Ryfa, Cristian Bolton and Peter Podlunsek. It was Brageot who took the Challenger Cup title in Las Vegas. At the season's end Czech pilot Petr Kopfstein and Slovenia's Peter Podlunsek graduated to the Master Class for 2016.
It was a year for the history books in 2016. Matthias Dolderer became the first German pilot to be crowned World Champion, as well as the first pilot to win the title with a race to spare!
Florian Bergér took the Challenger Cup making it a German double in 2016. The year also saw two more pilots promoted from the Challenger Series, Czech pilot Petr Kopfstein and Peter Podlunsek from Slovenia, made their move and instantly started to perform in the Master Class.
The iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway also hosted a round of the Red Bull Air Race for the first time in the sport's history. At the final race of 2016, in Las Vegas, Former World Champion Nigel Lamb hung up his famous white gloves and retired from the sport after 64 races.
The 2017 season was one of the most exhilarating the sport has seen in its 12 seasons. Martin Sonka had been promising to take his first win for a while and outclassed the opposition at the season opener in Abu Dhabi. But he wasn't to have it all his own way.
Yoshihide Muroya hit back with two consecutive wins in San Diego and then at his home race in Chiba. Kirby Chambliss, nine years on since his last win, threw his hat into the World Championship ring by winning the next two races in Budapest and Kazan (the Red Bull Air Race's first ever race in Russia).
Sonka won at race six in Porto and then Muroya won at the Lausitzring in Germany, meaning the race was going to go down to the final round of the season. Indianapolis set the scene for the season finale and the Round of 14 saw the title chasers Sonka and Muroya go head to head. Muroya won and when Sonka hit a pylon it looked like his title chase was over. However, difficult weather conditions saw other pilots falter and Sonka progressed to the Round of 8 as the fastest loser. Both pilots made it through to the Final 4 and it was to be Muroya's title when he set the track record in his final run. Nobody could come close.
The season finished with Muroya taking the World Championship by four points with Sonka second and Pete McLeod third.