Hall’s Long Journey To World Champion
In the last run of the final race of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, Australia’s Matt Hall – who had stood on the overall podium four times previously – finally clinched the top step.
The pressure could hardly have been higher. A three-time runner-up in the World Championship with one third-place finish, Hall came into the 2019 season finale in Chiba, Japan in second; and the series was being discontinued, so there would be no future opportunities. If that were not enough, a typhoon was threatening to cancel the race and leave him, once again, a bridesmaid.
“I’ve been through this, but there was more pressure because it was the last chance,” says the former Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander. “I was trying to play it cool, but deep down I was working really hard mentally to keep it en route.”
Hall’s trajectory to the top started in his debut season, 2009, when he claimed Australia’s first overall podium. No other rookie ever managed to fly so high. By 2015 the Aussie was the only pilot able to keep up with British legend Paul Bonhomme. Hall even won the season finale, but missed the crown by five points. The next year, Hall rebounded from back issues to take on a dominant Matthias Dolderer. However, the German would not be denied, and it was another second place overall.
Then, Hall’s MXS-R raceplane developed an issue that necessitated switching to an Edge 540, making 2017 a building season. Japan’s Yoshihide Muroya won the World Championship, with the Czech Republic’s Martin Sonka in second and Hall sixth.
Hall’s 2018 campaign with teammates David Finch (Technician), Peter Wezenbeek (Tactician) and Andrew Musgrove (Team Coordinator) had all the earmarks of The One, when back-to-back race wins put the pilot atop the leaderboard for the first time in his career. “I'm much better in attack mode than defensive mode.... at the end of the season we'll see where we're at,” he remarked. When the finale arrived, Hall was back on the attack, and in a heartbreaking final he lost the title to Sonka by three-tenths of a second.
At the beginning of 2019, Hall stated, “Something like becoming World Champion, that’s a dream, it’s not a goal. I don’t think you should put a timeline on a dream.” Engine problems put the team in fifth at the season opener, and then, with the announcement that the Red Bull Air Race would not continue after a condensed 2019 season, Hall had a timeline, whether he wanted one or not. While Muroya won stops 1 and 2 and Hall triumphed at stop 3, it was Sonka in the overall lead with only Chiba to go. There, the Czech star extended his advantage by two more points in Qualifying.
Despite intermittent wind and rain on Sunday, the real storm was in the racetrack. Muroya lost the day’s first head-to-head, and then, stunningly, Sonka committed an Over G and lost his own heat. The World Championship was in Hall’s grasp… until Muroya advanced as Fastest Loser. Eventually, both made the Final 4. “It was hard, emotionally.” Hall remembers. “I thought, ‘When does this day end?’”
Hall needed to finish no lower than third to finally secure the World Championship, and Canada’s Pete McLeod opened the door with penalties including a pylon hit. Muroya was clean, as was a slightly slower Kirby Chambliss of the USA. Hall flew last. “Pete [Wezenbeek] stuck his head in the canopy just before I started and said Pete hit a pylon,” Hall shares. Musgrove quickly re-checked the ranks and confirmed that third place would clinch the crown. “That was when I went, ‘I’ll just fly a penalty-free run, and I can be World Champion,’” Hall recounts.
He continues, “I wasn’t nervous. I was aiming for about one minute flat, which is exactly where I put it. Jimmy [Race Director Jim DiMatteo] took a long time to tell me my time, so I had to sit and think, ‘Have I got a penalty I didn’t know about? Or did Pete run a 56s with the pylon hit and I just lost the championship?”
Once DiMatteo announced that Hall was third, the pilot knew his championship dream was realised. “I was worried I was going to become the most famous bridesmaid in history, so to finally get it is a huge relief,” Hall admits.
The pilot was especially happy to achieve that dream in front of Chiba’s 98,000 spectators. He explains: “Apart from Australia, this is the best place for me to do this, because we’ve got a really big following in Japan, and a lot of Australians came up for this race, and my family. You don’t look at the crowds as a race pilot, but when I was told I was World Champion, I asked to do a pass down the track. That was the first time I looked at the crowd, and it was absolutely spectacular.”
As crews went on to disassemble the racetrack, an emotional Hall fielded questions. “It feels good to be the best in the world at something,” he said. “We’ve always been pushing the championship leaders, and to be on that podium five times and not get a World Championship would be something you’d never get over. I can finally say I’m World Champion.”