No Easy Wins In The Air Race
1.568s. It might seem like an innocuous number, but it marks the difference between first and last place in Qualifying at the season opener in Abu Dhabi – a far cry from the early days of the sport when whole seconds could separate first and second place on the race podium.
The Abu Dhabi timesheet margins weren’t an anomaly, though. For example, subtract the penalties in each heat in the Round of 14, and five of the seven heats were decided with less than a second’s difference between the net times. In the remaining two heats, one was won with a 2-second difference, whilst another was decided due to a DNF result.
The Round of 8 had similar results, and it was again penalties that cost three of the four losing pilots. Kirby Chambliss lost his heat by 0.966s – crucially, without his 2-second penalty, the American pilot would have easily won a spot in the Final 4.
The same could be said for Juan Velarde and Mika Brageot. Both pilots set a faster time than their heat rival, but failed to progress as they both incurred 2-second penalties. The only Round of 8 heat that broke this trend was Matt Hall versus Martin Sonka. Despite running a clean lap, Hall failed to progress, with Sonka winning by a 0.2s margin despite picking up a 1-second penalty. But it’s worth noting that Hall’s engine problems stunted the Australian’s performance, putting his result down to technical issues rather than pilot error.
After the Abu Dhabi race, Ben Murphy summed up the tightness of the series perfectly, saying: “The person who wins, is the person who doesn’t lose. If you pick up even a one second penalty, you are out.”
The Final 4 followed in the same vein, with Yoshihide Muroya finishing just 0.003s faster than Sonka – an almost inconceivable gap of about 30cm (1ft).
Michael Goulian, who placed third overall just 0.229s behind winner Muroya, forecasts that 2019 will see the tightest-run race for the podium in the sport’s history: “There are so many fast guys, and it’s so very tight, that you can’t make a mistake. And with the new G rule, it’s very easy to make a one second mistake,” the American commented.
When compared to other motorsports, the margins on the Red Bull Air Race timesheets are some of the closest. At the most recent F1 race in Bahrain, Lewis Hamilton took the win from his teammate Valtteri Bottas by more than 2.9 seconds. And in WRC, at the most recent round in Corsica, the gap between first and second place was just over 40 seconds. It’s a similar story in MotoGP, where Marc Márquez beat Valentino Rossi by just over 9.8 seconds. Although the first race of the MotoGP season was close – Andrea Dovizioso beat Márquez by just 0.023s.
The scene is already set – this season’s race for the title will come down to consistency, focus, and a pilot that makes the fewest mistakes over race weekend.
Three-time World Champion Paul Bonhomme has the final word on the subject. “You can spend thousands of dollars on go-faster modifications to save a tenth of a second, but if you collect a 2-second penalty because you haven’t rehearsed those wind conditions in your head, it’s all a waste of time (literally). It’s vital to have a fast aeroplane but you have to fly clean, no penalties, level in the gates, clean, no climbing in the gate, clean, no sinking in the gate, clean, no over-Gs, clean… are you getting the point?”