Readying the racetrack

The first race of the 2016 season is fast approaching, but there is at least one team who have been preparing for months, and will soon be in Abu Dhabi preparing the track for the first race – the Racetrack Operations team.

The 15-strong team is divided into three separate crews – the Airgators, responsible for the pylons, the Rescue Ops, who look out for the pilots, and the Racetrack Ops, who oversee everything inside the race box.

Marko van Es is in charge of setting up the racetrack. He's been involved in Red Bull Air Race since 2005 and jokes that only Peter Besenyei has been at more races than him. "My team and I are here for two weeks before the race, and for one week after," explained van Es.

It's a huge operation to set up a Red Bull Air Race World Championship racetrack. Marko heads up the team with Ivanka Kösters, with the pair working closely together, but in very different roles.

During the race, van Es will be looking after the teams. Kösters will be in the race tower, communicating between her teams and the Race Director. She will tell the Airgators when they can enter the race box and relay to the Race Director how long they will be. "I am in control of everything inside the race box, apart from the flying," Kösters explained.

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The toughest work for the team is setting up any track that is on water. It's even harder in open water. To make sure they have everything they need for any eventuality, Marko and Ivanka will have 12 40ft containers at every race. They are filled with anchors, boats, steel wire, diving equipment, the rescue team's requirements, and much more.

"For Abu Dhabi, the track is in relatively calm waters, but we still had 76 anchors and around 10km of steel wire to get everything in position," explained van Es.

When the team get to Chiba they will have an extra container filled with heavier anchors (some weighing up to 1,000kg) and steel wire that will be 80mm thick. "The seabed is much deeper and there is 40km of open water in front of us. When you have that much open water and the wind is blowing in, there could huge waves and we have to make sure the barges are secure. We don't want them twisting or moving out of position," said van Es.

Racetracks in open water are the toughest to construct. The depth of the seabed can vary from 25m down to 1,500m, all inside the race box. "In open water we can have one anchor at 60m and the other at just 20m. They'll be holding the same gate. We have to be aware of the tide as well, it can rise and drop by 2m on a calm day, so we have to take that into account," explained van Es.

"In some locations we will need 12km of steel wire just to get the gates stable. And it's all done by hand without divers. The other problem is that the pylons act like 25m high sails and can create a force of up to 1.5 tonnes on the anchor, there's a lot to consider. Once every gate has been secured the team will then move them into the exact position using GPS coordinates that have been set by the track designer," said van Es.

van Es and Kösters have schematics of the seabed for the entire globe. So when a new location is suggested they'll look at the maps to see if it will be possible to host a race there. "Some locations are out of the question due to fibre optic cables and gas and oil pipes laying across the seabed. It's forbidden to put an anchor down there. We were looking at one location and there were 60 cables running to Asia, there was no way we could put a Red Bull Air Race right over the top," said van Es.

But the biggest challenge for the Racetrack Operations team is always the weather. It's the one thing they can't control. "The toughest track we worked on was Gdynia in 2014," said Kösters.

"The weather was so windy that we had to make a decision about leaving the barges out or not. We thought about leaving them out overnight, but they might have broken their moorings and washed up onto the shore. So we brought them into the dock. We had just 24 hours to get them back out and ready for the race. When it comes to setting up a racetrack, there's always a challenge. But it's not up to us, it's what Mother Nature wants," concluded Kösters.

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