Can Hall Win It All?
With his victory at Lake Balaton, only September’s season finale left to race, Matt Hall has put himself squarely in contention for the title. After earning four World Championship podiums without attaining the top step, Hall has just one more chance to claim the trophy. And he’s aiming to make the most of it.
Having joined the World Championship in 2009, Hall is in his eighth season, and his record of 24 race podiums – including seven wins – makes him the most successful Red Bull Air Race pilot never to have won a season title.
But he has come very, very close.
The former Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander captured his inaugural World Championship podium (third place) in his debut season, something no rookie has managed to do before or since. In 2015, Hall was the only pilot challenging British legend Paul Bonhomme right down to the final race, finishing second overall. It was a similar story in 2016, when he was again runner-up behind winner Matthias Dolderer. And last season, he took the number-two spot once more, missing out on the grail to Martin Sonka by just 0.304s in the final round.
“Becoming World Champion, that’s a dream, it’s not a goal. I don’t think you should put a timeline on a dream. Because your dream becomes a nightmare,” Hall said before the 2019 opener in Abu Dhabi. “Am I going to become World Champion this year? It would be awesome, but I can’t control that. I will continue to work toward my dream.”
Given engine problems that at the 2019 opening stop, it’s impressive that Matt Hall Racing is in the title hunt at all. The team gave their all to achieve a fifth place finish, but 2017 World Champion Yoshihide Muroya and the defending titleholder Sonka finished one-two, taking the top spots in the overall standings.
Then, with the May announcement that the Red Bull Air Race would not continue past an abbreviated four-race 2019 season, Hall’s mindset toward his World Championship dream seemed to shift – it's now, or never. After seizing second place in Kazan, Russia, where he finished between Muroya and Sonka, he wasn’t coy about declaring, “My theory with this being a four-race season is that you need to win two and podium one. Yoshi has already won two, so I’ve got to win the next two to be World Champion.”
In the Red Bull Air Race debut at Lake Balaton, Hall made good on his intentions, though not without ups and downs. He topped the only Free Practice session only to log worrying penalties in Qualifying that put him head-to-head against Muroya in Race Day’s opening round. There, Muroya blinked, with Hall outpacing him by 1.784s, and in the Final 4, Sonka tripped up as well, and would have finished behind the Australian even without a pylon-hit penalty.
Now, Hall finds himself in a familiar position, battling for the title at the last race. He won’t be going into that September stop with the overall lead, but in the previous two seasons, the crown has gone to the pilot coming into the finale at second overall anyway. And second place is exactly where the Australian sits, with Sonka at 65 points to 61 for Hall and 55 for Muroya. There is a maximum of 28 points on tap for a top result in the final race (25 for the win plus 3 for the best Qualifying time), making the trio the only ones with a chance for the championship, although others will still be fighting for an overall podium position.
Also troubling for Hall’s opponents: Once he wins one race, he tends to triumph at the next, as well. In 2018, his two season victories were consecutive, and in 2016, he took back-to-back golds as well. As for season finale venue of Chiba, Muroya won there in 2016 and 2017, but Hall prevailed there last year.
Looking ahead, Hall says, “This will be my fifth fight for the World Championship title. I know what that’s like, and to tell the truth, I’m not looking forward to the two weeks leading into Chiba, because it’s always stressful, but the day itself is always super exciting. The reward is there, I’ve just got to go get it.”