Classic Challenger Class Stories
When the Red Bull Air Race returned to our skies on 2014 it brought with it a new and exciting feeder series – the Challenger Cup. This opened up the racing to younger pilots who had already proved themselves in the world of aerobatics and other competitions, and were deemed good enough to fly in the Air Race. It gave them the opportunity to acquire the skills needed to become competitive.
The series was a huge success, with the racing proving just as exciting as the Master Class, and the pilots showing immense skill in the track. Over the six years, seven Challenger pilots were promoted to the Master Class, with six of those achieving a podium finish in the elite category.
Here we look back at some of the top stories from the six years of the Challenger Cup…
Le Vot instantly makes a mark
When the Challenger Class races began in Abu Dhabi 2014, François Le Vot immediately made an impact. He took the race win and continued his streak of victories, winning the opening three races of the first season. Those performances were enough for the Frenchman to prove his flying talent, and he was promoted to the Master Class after just one season.
Kopfstein takes the first title
For the first two seasons of the Challenger Cup, the season was a winner-takes-all competition at the season finale. The six best performing pilots over the previous races in the season were invited to attend the final and compete to become champion. At the 2014 final in a cold Spielberg, Austria, Czech pilot Petr Kopfstein won the race by more than a second, and was the first pilot ever to be named a Challenger Cup Champion.
Brageot makes it three in a row
In 2015 the season wrapped up with back-to-back races in the US. First, the series headed to Fort Worth, with the season finale set in Las Vegas. Mika Brageot had been showing his pedigree all season by finishing on the podium at every race he competed in. In Spielberg, which was the sixth race of the season, Brageot took the win. He didn’t look back. The French pilot went on to win in Fort Worth and then take the title in Las Vegas. Brageot was then moved into the Master Mentoring Program for the 2016 season, before joining the Master Class.
Melanie Astles makes history
In 2016, French pilot Mélanie Astles made history by becoming the first female pilot in the Challenger Class. Astles instantly became a fan favourite and constantly promoted women in aviation and her charity work. She claimed her first podium in Indianapolis during her debut season, and returning the following year she would also become the first woman to win a major motorsport event at “The Brickyard.”
The Bergér empire begins
Florian Bergér – who became the most successful Challenger Class pilot ever – joined the series in 2015. The softly-spoken German was quiet in his first season, but there were glimpses of his ability from the start. He finished fourth in his first race, just half a second off the podium and he took his first podium in Fort Worth. At his second race in 2016 he took his first win. The rules had changed for the Challenger Cup in 2016 – similar to the the Master Class where the points collected at each race were added together, but the pilots' three best results counted towards their final score. At the close of 2016 Bergér took the title by just two points from Sweden's Daniel Ryfa.
Bergér made history in 2017 when he became the only pilot to win back-to-back Challenger Cup titles, beating Daniel Ryfa into second place again. There were nine pilots competing in 2017, including three new pilots. One of the new intakes was Hong Kong’s Kenny Chiang, who took a race win in only the fourth race.
Countback decides new champ
The 2018 Challenger Cup was the most closely contested in the sport’s history. Going into the season finale, Bergér was topping the leaderboard on 28 points, with Luke Czepiela just two points behind, followed by Kevin Coleman in third on 24 points. On Race Day, one of these pilots could have taken the title, depending on where they finished. Czepiela won the race, with Bergér second and Coleman third. This put both Bergér and Czepiela on 36 points each. So it was time for a countback. Both pilots had two wins and two second place finishes, but as Czepeila had the third-best result, the Polish Challenger claimed the title – a first for him and a first for Poland.
Nine wins, two championships
At the final race of the Challenger Cup, Florian Bergér claimed his ninth win, making him the most successful race winner in the Challenger Cup. His great friend and fierce rival, Daniel Ryfa had eight wins under his belt and the pair looked to tie with eight wins apiece. But as Bergér crossed the Finish Gate for the final, time he was crowned the race winner and took his total to one more than Ryfa.
Best of enemies
Ryfa and Bergér became very close during their five years of competing against each other. In the track they both flew to win, but on the ground they would congratulate and cheer each other on. It was good to see two ruthless competitors – who would not give each other an inch in the air – look out for each other when the racing was done.
Master Class success
There is no denying that the Challenger Class was a success for the Red Bull Air Race, and the proof was there in the pilots who migrated to the Master Class. Across the six seasons, seven pilots advanced. They were: François Le Vot and Spain’s Juan Velarde in 2015, Petr Kopfstein and Slovenia’s Peter Podlunsek in 2016, Chile’s Cristian Bolton and Mika Brageot in 2017 and Great Britain’s Ben Murphy in 2018. Six of those pilots collected at least one race podium in the World Championship.