Customised For A Championship
Like the cutting-edge equipment of any top motorsport, the raceplanes in the Red Bull Air Race are marvels of innovation, and no two are alike. It is all about getting the best performance when a thousandth of a second is the difference between winning and losing.
Because raceplanes in the World Championship have standardised powerplants (engine, propeller and exhaust), teams are endlessly looking for other ways to improve aerodynamics, handling, engine cooling and power – all while keeping the aircraft lightweight and safe. So what makes a raceplane a raceplane?
Raceplanes have inverted fuel and oil systems (Figure 1 on the graphic, see below) so that they can fly upside down, and they are also designed to operate under high-G.
The cockpit (2) is ultra-customised. Think about how great it is to have the seat of your car adjusted just the way you like it. Then amplify that feeling times infinity to understand how particular a Red Bull Air Race pilot is about seat position, control stick responsiveness and sightlines (sometimes including a window in the floor). State-of-the-art instrument panels can give pilots all the information they need on one screen while collecting data for the team tactician.
Stretching over the cockpit, raceplane canopies (3) have reached new levels of aerodynamics, with some pilots finding ways to safely streamline their helmet in order to make their canopy profile even lower.
Winglets (4), additions to the ends of the wings with a bended shape that points up or down, and wingtips, which have only a subtle bend or are flat, can reduce drag and increase the roll rate for better manoeuvrability. Teams work with world-leading engineers to design the latest, and hopefully greatest, versions.
Aileron (5) fences, vortex generators and synthetic Shark Skin also enhance the way air flows over the wing. Their effects can be hard to measure precisely, but as Australian pilot Matt Hall once said when asked whether his Shark Skin would produce an improvement: “It's better to have [it] than to lose by 0.010 of a second and think it's because of not making the modification.”
Well-designed cowling (6) – the covering over the engine – allows in plenty of cooling air while creating as little drag as possible. Air intakes are modified to increase manifold pressure and engine power. Because raceplane wheels don’t retract, teams cover them with sleek wheel pants (7) to reduce drag. “If you change the wheel cover, you’re changing the airflow. That can give you maybe one knot,” explains Cristian Bolton. “You might say, ‘One knot? That’s nothing.’ But one knot is two-hundredths of a second, which is a lot of time in the race nowadays.”
Some modifications can be installed (or undone) in the hangars at a race stop, including a safety inspection by the Red Bull Air Race technical experts. But teams prefer to take time during the offseason to make and test mods away from the eyes of their rivals. When there are consecutive races in the same region, teams may find a secluded location to implement a quick mid-season makeover.
Not all customisations are visible. One critical task is to determine the raceplane’s optimal engine (8) settings for peak performance. Finding its ideal centre of gravity is another grail. Teams shift weight in the aircraft to find a “CG point” that creates minimal drag while also providing handling that suits the pilot. The latest hot modification is the addition of a water cooling system to help keep engine temperatures in check.
To get the best advantage over opponents, Spanish pilot Juan Velarde confides, “You need to try to be the first one to implement a modification. Then let them copy you.”
Do all raceplane customisations work? Many result in an obvious improvement, but it is not uncommon for modifications to be tested and rejected because they do not have the desired effect. And sometimes, the outcome is not measurable, but a pilot senses a benefit – or just likes to keep the competition guessing. “In this game you have to keep adapting,” says pilot Ben Murphy of Great Britain. “If you stand still, you’re left way behind.”