Challenger rivals describe their milestone wins at Lake Balaton
Although there is still one Red Bull Air Race stop to go, the Challenger Class pilots are each slated for three races, and neither Costa nor Ryfa flies in September’s season finale. The Balaton double-header offered a last chance for glory.
Costa, the sport’s first Italian pilot, joined the feeder class in 2018 and took a podium at only his second race (Cannes), but a win had eluded him. At first, Lake Balaton didn’t seem to be going Costa’s way. Just when he was about to fly in the only Free Practice session, bad weather intervened. “I had to stop and divert,” he explained. When he did get in the track, he was fourth on the six-pilot timesheet. “So it was a little bit heavy duty on Race Day for me,” Costa admitted.
In that windy Saturday race, the Italian was the last to take off. Ryfa threw down the day’s fastest net time, but incurred two seconds of penalty. Still, no one had managed to top him. The window was open for Costa. “I was very nervous until the moment I was cleared into the track, then I flew like there was no tomorrow,” Costa relates. He earned an Over G penalty but held his nerve to win by 0.608s, adding his name to the hallowed list of Italian motorsport winners.
Costa commented, “The track is quite challenging and I think it is one of the most exciting, because there are so many different lines that you can take. The key was to really understand the best line with such wind, and … be quick to change, because the wind was literally changing every 20, 30 minutes.” He concluded, “It’s an incredible emotion. I really cannot describe it. There’s been so much hard work behind it that it’s… it’s incredible.”
The drive to prevail at Lake Balaton was especially strong for Costa and Ryfa because the Red Bull Air Race will not continue past 2019. Ryfa is the only pilot who has competed in every season since the Challenger Class was introduced in 2014, and he was determined to add to his legacy. “It really made it more important for me to make a statement and win here,” he acknowledged.
But he has seen the times get faster and the racing get more competitive, partly because of the switch from an Extra raceplane to a powerful Edge in 2018, and also due to the competitors’ mounting skill level. “The pilots joining the Challenger Class have been growing over the years, and at this current stage they are really good, so it’s difficult to win,” Ryfa confided.
Having come so close to victory on Saturday, Ryfa knew he had a chance to top the table on Sunday if he could avoid penalties. When Costa clocked a clean but conservative 1:04.447, Ryfa saw the open window, but it nearly slammed shut on him. “I was trying very hard not to over-G. And I didn’t do it in the gate where I planned not to do it, but I did it in the other end of the track!” he explained. However, experience kicked in, and facing a high-G turn at the penultimate gate, where every other pilot had chosen a line upward or toward the right, he went flat and to the left. The tactic brought him home at 1:04.250, depriving Costa of the repeat win by 0.197s.
Ryfa’s result confirms his status as the most successful pilot in the Challenger Class to date, with an unprecedented 21 podiums, highlighted by eight victories, which ties the all-time win record of his close friend and rival Florian Bergér. Calling it a “fantastic” day, Ryfa said. “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.”