Bonhomme Reviews the Final Race

The three-time World Champion offers his opinions on the pilots' performances in Chiba

The final race had no end of drama and excitement, but now that the dust has settled, 19-time race winner Paul Bonhomme reviews how he thinks the pilots performed at the very last Red Bull Air Race…

14th Petr Kopfstein 
Petr was continually improving his runs during the Free Practice sessions and he took a very respectable sixth in Qualifying – only one second from the leader. The Czech fans had high hopes for the weekend with both of their pilots flying well, but Petr’s weekend came to an abrupt halt after he went through the start gate at 192kts, two knots over the entry speed limit. Was this a tactical error? If you try for exactly 190, it is very easy for a gust or wind change to take you over, in this case collecting a DNF. Such a shame as his actual run was beautifully flown. 

13th Martin Sonka 
Martin was having such a fantastic week in the track, topping the time sheets in two of the Free Practice sessions and with second in Qualifying (collecting two points). It looked like he was on a smooth road to the Championship. It all stopped after a straight pull at Gate 9 which peaked at 11.28G. The wind had picked up from the south and it may have been a classic case of airspeed being much higher than ground speed which gave Martin the impression of needing to pull harder on the stick for the VTM. He’ll kick himself but at least he has a WC trophy from last year! 

12th Matthias Dolderer 
Matthias found his form in Quali and was just 4/10ths of a second off the winning time. Sadly, he was a second off the pace of Pete McLeod even after the Canadian had collected a one second penalty for crossing the track limit line. It looked to me like he was being too careful with the G at the Gate 9 and 13 VTMs. Either way, he had a struggle as the in-form Pete McLeod flew one of the fastest times of the day. Like Martin Sonka, Matthias has a World Championship trophy to admire at home and a whole host of happy memories. 

11th Cristian Bolton 
Cristian didn’t fly at all on Friday and missed both practice sessions because of an oil cooler snag. That is a huge penalty as it means the team miss some valuable track time to analyse and play back on Friday evening to help the times on Quali day. That was certainly the reason he found the safety line on his first Quali run, hence incurring a DQ, he then had to play catch up on Q2. As a result, he opted for safe tactics in the Round of 14 (wise in my opinion) but it wasn’t enough to beat Monsieur Le Vot. 

10th Juan Velarde 
Juan Velarde had been flying superbly all week. He was on rails... 2nd in FP1, 2 and 3 and he then won Qualifying and collected three points before the race had even started. In the Round of 14 he met Kirby Chambliss and for some reason, he was off the pace. There was some extra time in the VTM’s but otherwise no obvious reason... such a shame after a spectacular week. 

9th Michael Goulian 
Mike learned about the importance of Quali position. He flew well, especially in Q2, but just nicked the track limit line after Gate 9 (he went flat right there) and that ruined an otherwise slick time. The resulting eighth place in Quali created a head-to head against the man on a mission: Matt Hall. In that heat in the Round of 14, Mike looked like he went a little wide around the last chicane pylon, going north on both passes, and that extra time was enough to allow Matt Hall to creep ahead. 

8th Ben Murphy 
Ben must have had the shock of his life when he saw how the head-to-heads lined up for the Round of 14. He was up against the local hero but also someone who’d shown the resolve to win twice here at home. It didn’t faze Ben at all and he flew a stunning heat seemingly knocking the Japanese pilot out of the competition. Would Ben ever be able to go out on the streets of Japan again? Thankfully Yoshi got the fastest loser spot and Ben went into a R8 flight against Pete McLeod. That didn’t go so well as he misjudged the set up of Gate 2 to 3 and just nicked the first chicane pylon with his tail. An incorrect level at Gate 9 put an end to his race day flying. 

7th François Le Vot 
It was so close to being an amazing Quali by François. By turning slightly too early at Gate 8 in the second run, he missed winning Quali by a big margin. Nevertheless, third was still a good result for the Saturday flying. Onto Race Day and the skill continued, winning his R14 head-to-head comfortably which then propelled him into the Round of 8 against the speedy Yoshi Muroya. Yoshi had the advantage of going first and of course flew clean and fast... did that fast time upset the rhythm for François and push him too hard? An incorrect level at Gate 8 and a pylon hit at 10 ruined his chances. Annoyingly, both François’ Quali and Round of 14 time would have beaten Yoshi’s time... 

6th Mika Brageot 
Mika qualified ninth as he was strangely off the pace on the Saturday. His flying looked aggressive in the first run (that normally shows up as a slower time) and then Q2 was even slower. Luck went his way in the Round of 14 as his opponent, Kopfstein, started too fast and posted a DNF. Into the Round of 8 and the pace caught up with Brageot as he met Matt Hall. He collected a one second over-G penalty, but without that would have been tantalisingly close to beating the Aussie. 

5th Nicolas Ivanoff 
Possibly one of the highlights of the weekend was seeing Nicolas race against Kirby in the Round of 8. Two of the longest serving pilots in the series and they finished only 3/10ths of a second apart, with Nico being knocked out. As well as that highlight, we mustn’t forget Nicolas’s “giant killing” moment in the Round of 14. Posting a slightly off-pace 58.5s including a wing stall after Gate 9, that was fast enough to put pressure on Martin Sonka who over-G’d at Gate 9 and was out of the competition as well as losing the chance of a World Championship. 

4th Pete McLeod 
Pete had a great build up to the weekend by topping the table in FP3. Quali didn’t go quite so well with a safety climb out followed by a penalty for climbing in Gate 5 but we’d seen the smooth style that Pete has shown before. The Sunday started really well and he almost breezed through the Round of 14 (beating the 2016 World Champion Dolderer) and then the Round of 8 (beating Ben Murphy). He knew he had to push hard in the Final 4 but in the process clobbered Gate 2 and then got an incorrect level at 8. He inadvertently made the day much easier for Matt Hall who now just needed a podium in the Final 4. 

3rd Matt Hall
Matt must have been wondering what to do after the Free Practice sessions. Whilst he was flying well, the times were off the pace and tactics would have to play a part in his weekend. He played it superbly. As Nigel Lamb proved in 2014, you do not need to win everything to become World Champion, and that’s what Matt achieved here in Japan after so many years. I’ve been there and I know how it feels... there comes a time where you think maybe it is not meant to be but that Aussie determination sorted it out throughout the season and at the very end. Despite the Final 4 looking easy for him (he should buy the Canadians some beer) there was an immense amount of pressure. He nailed it... 

2nd Kirby Chambliss 
Another pilot to emerge from low down in the time sheets this weekend was the veteran Texan! Free Practice sessions finishing 11th, 9th and 13th followed by Qualifying last did not look like a winning weekend for Kirby. The professionalism took over and he won his Round of 14 and 8 heats convincingly before ending up second on the podium. A spectacular result and proof that experience counts. 

1st Yoshi Muroya 
Yoshi should write a book on how to soak up home race pressure. That’s the third time he’s won at home and the Japanese fans are so, so enthusiastic it can be a massive distraction. Somehow though, the pilot from Fukushima has a knack of diverting all that attention into getting his aeroplane to go fast. The mental strength required to switch into race mode is immense and Yoshi has shown us a masterclass of racing under pressure (and the importance of the Fastest Loser spot in the Round of 14!). He did his bit and it was a superb attempt to win the World Championship. I know he won’t be happy, but a win in Japan and 2nd in the World Championship is a very good result. 

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