F1 driver Kovalainen talks progression with pilot Brageot

On hand for the Red Bull Air Race season kickoff in Abu Dhabi this week, Finnish racing driver Heikki Kovalainen went on a high-speed, high-G flight with French pilot Mika Brageot. Afterward, the two talked about what it takes to get to the top level in an elite motorsport, and discussed a new Master Mentoring Program.

"It's something quite extraordinary, an incredible experience!" said Kovalainen after 2015 Challenger Cup–winning pilot Mika Brageot piloted him on a G flight above the Persian Gulf. After racing in F1 for seven seasons, Kovalainen knows a little something about speed and G forces, but the experience in the sky was an eye-opener:

"It's similar to an F1 race car in that it reacts very sharp when you turn and accelerate and hit the brakes, but this takes it to another level! How quickly the raceplane responds to the controls – that was a surprise to me. It's really impressive."

Kovalainen and Brageot discovered that they have a lot in common. Kovalainen worked his way up to his F1 seat through specialised programmes, and Brageot, who raced two years in the Challenger Class of the Red Bull Air Race, is now the first pilot to take part in a Master Mentoring Program – designed to take the preparation of top young pilots to the next level as they aim for transition to the Master Class. Since 2014, the Challenger Cup series has helped promising pilots build the individual skills needed for high-speed, low-altitude flying in racetracks. The Master Mentoring Program is designed to further increase flight safety and competitiveness by providing coached track time in actual Master Class planes as well as mentoring in how to set up and lead a team.

The programme pairs select pilots who emerge from the Challenger Class to train with Master Class teams for mentoring. All this season Brageot will train rather than competing, mentored by 2014 World Champion Nigel Lamb and his Breitling Racing Team. He'll be in the hangar as they set strategies, and at most stops he'll be granted track time to fly Lamb's custom MXS-R raceplane, not as a test pilot, but rather to learn from the resulting data with Lamb, Red Bull Air Race coaches and other Master Class pilots as mentors.

"What Mika's doing makes a lot of sense. In my career, I was in the Renault Junior Program, and then Renault moved me to test driver, and that was a very important year for me, watching what they were doing and at the same time building it up myself on the track," says Kovalainen, whose team mentors included drivers Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella. "I learned the small details that are critical to giving you the advantage, and I learned a lot about how to get the best out of a team. Many race drivers do this."

While participation in the Master Mentoring Program isn't a guarantee of promotion to the Master Class, Brageot recognises its potential. "It's really important to see all the elements that it takes to succeed, and it's been a learning process from the first second. This step can make me stronger, more relaxed, and for sure more focused on my flying in the next years, and hopefully in the Master Class," he stated. "In motorsports, we're all the same, finally. And it was great to hear from Heikki how this kind of mentoring works in auto racing. It's a big opportunity."

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