Designed to win – Part 2: The technical side
When it comes to the raceplanes of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, beauty is more than skin deep. Because placements in the competition can be determined by mere thousandths of a second, a design has to be functional as well as fabulous.
Some teams create their design entirely in paint, while others incorporate stickers against a painted background. Germany's Matthias Dolderer uses stickers, and not only for ease in adding partner logos. "Every time you paint a plane completely, it most probably adds weight, and we are at the maximum limit already," Dolderer says.
Dolderer's team did have to undertake some strategic repainting, however, due to aerodynamic modifications to the fuselage. "If you want to paint a raceplane completely, it takes a lot of time, so we just painted parts of the raceplane that we worked on. You have to sand down to the material, put a primer on, and then put the paint on as light as possible. It's a lot of man hours and has to be really smooth," Dolderer describes.
Next came the sticker application, another painstaking process. "First of all, the surface has to be really clean, free of all oils and polish," Dolderer outlines. "And an aeroplane is curved, so that makes positioning the stickers really difficult and challenging."
Most important are the implications for the raceplane's performance. "The stickers have to be as light and as thin as possible – just the right material to not add too much weight and not dramatically change the aerodynamics," the German notes. "If they are too thick, it breaks the airflow a bit."
French pilot Mika Brageot and his team were excited about a chrome paint they envisioned for their raceplane, but how the paint would perform technically was a big unknown. They were not even sure it would adhere to the MXS-R raceplane.
"The black chrome effect requires a very specific technique and products, and this had never been done in the Red Bull Air Race before," says Brageot. "We spent the offseason developing a black primer that significantly increases the adhesion of the paint on our carbon fibre structure."
Noting that the paint is somewhat delicate, Team Coordinator Victoria Griffiths adds, "A big question was also the temperatures. For instance, the difference from the low temperature in the cargo plane to the high temps on Abu Dhabi tarmac."
Even the tape used to cover drag-inducing gaps between the wing and the fuselage can potentially mar the perfect surface of their new paint job, so the crew has to be extra careful when removing the sticky stuff during post-race dismantling. But both the team and fans love the finished look, and Griffiths points out a racing advantage: "We managed to save weight with this paint scheme."
So can a raceplane's aesthetic design really make a difference in performance? Take Matt Hall: When the Australian team had their raceplane repainted to feature a new sponsor for 2018, the fresh design should have been the crowning touch after a year-long process of dialing in a brand-new raceplane. Instead, the new paint added more weight than expected, which in turn led to a difference in handling at the season opener in Abu Dhabi. Hall later explained, "The tail was quite heavy, which made it sensitive to pitch and that led to some over-Gs.
With two months before the next stop in France, Hall's team sprang back into action with another repaint. But did it lighten the load enough to restore the speed and balance that had helped Hall to strong performances at the end of the 2017 season? When he topped the timesheet in only the second Free Practice session on the French Riviera, the team knew the answer, and the Aussie went on to win the Cannes race.
"This plane is now basically back to the way it was in Indianapolis and Lausitz last year, and at both of those races I won Qualifying," Hall stated. "It is feeling that way again, and it goes to show we are back to being fast again."
You can see the pilots, and their painted planes on the 26-27 May in Chiba, Japan. Get your tickets HERE.