Challenger Class 2019 Season Review
There was buzz about the feeder class of the Red Bull Air Race even before the season began, with the announcement of three new pilots: Sammy Mason of the USA, Patrick Strasser of Austria and Vito Wyprächtiger of Switzerland. Each of the total 12 pilots flew three races in the 2019 campaign, which in a format change did not award a season Challenger Cup but focused on the competition for the podium at every stop.
At February’s season opener, all eyes were on the US pilot Mason. The newcomer had just turned 25, making him the youngest pilot ever to compete in the Red Bull Air Race. “The first time I went through the track, when I landed, I had chills – this is a pretty amazing moment,” Mason said. “I’ve been working toward it for 10 years, so it’s good to be here.”
The American would go on to finish fourth, but it was Florian Bergér of Germany, history’s only multi-time Challenger Cup winner, who dominated the kickoff by topping the timesheet in every session. Mélanie Astles of France erased memories of her 2018 podium drought with second place.
The next stop was Kazan, Russia, one of two double-headers on the Challenger Class calendar. This time, the spotlight was on Strasser in his own maiden race. “It was great. Until now, I had only flown in a training track. This is completely new for me, and it was absolutely fantastic. Especially to fly in Kazan over the river was superb,” the Austrian described.
When it came to results, Kenny Chiang of Hong Kong had a hot start, winning the opening day despite wearing gear loaned to him by Master Class pilots when his baggage was delayed. Meanwhile Mason impressed as he earned his first podium with second place. In Kazan 2, the Abu Dhabi victor Bergér returned to the track and continued his winning ways, edging out a breathtaking second-place effort from South Africa’s Patrick Davidson by just 0.065s.
The penultimate stop of 2019 was another Challenger Class double-header and the sport’s first race at Lake Balaton, Hungary. Winds and weather proved difficult over the “Hungarian Sea,” but that did not stop Switzerland’s Wyprächtiger from savoring his debut, commenting, “It was cool. It was really windy and really, really bumpy, but it was a lot of fun.”
In the opening race of a weekend that welcomed 100,000 spectators, Dario Costa made history as the first Italian to earn victory in the sport, with Daniel Ryfa of Sweden taking second. “So much work went into this,” said an elated Costa. “I continue to tell myself that talent doesn’t exist, it’s all about work, and it is like that.” On the following day, the tables were turned in Challenger Cup 2 at Lake Balaton, when the Italian and the Swede flew their last race. On this occasion, it was Costa in second and Ryfa rewriting the record books by becoming the only Challenger Class pilot to clinch three career race victories in the sport’s spiritual home of Hungary. “It’s the coolest motorsport ever on the planet. There will be nothing like it, and I will miss it for sure, but I’m very happy. I’m overwhelmed,” Ryfa shared.
Finally, in September, the Challenger Class flew one last time, at the season finale in Chiba, Japan. Bergér finished the year just like he started it, by leading every timesheet. With a forecast for adverse weather conditions on Sunday, the Challenger Class race was cancelled and the outcome from Qualifying – which Bergér had won by an eye-popping 1.761s over US standout Kevin Coleman – determined the race result.
“I am disappointed that there is no Challenger Class race here tomorrow. But on the other hand, I am super happy. I won all three races I participated in,” said the German, whose victory made him the all-time most successful contender in the category, with nine race wins. “I’m very happy to have been here and to see the other pilots and fly with them, so winning on top of it is really cool.”