A Recap Of Race History
When the Red Bull sports think-tank developed the Red Bull Air Race early in the new millennium, the objective was to create the most advanced aerial challenge the world had ever seen. The result? A new standard for motorsport.
Initial development: 2002-2003
“Speed. Time. Easy to understand.” – That, says Red Bull Air Race pioneer Peter Besenyei, was the focus of nearly two years of research and development for a new race series that would become the first major motorsport in three dimensions. Key was finding a safe way to create a racetrack, and Besenyei made the first drawings after a meeting in 2002. The initial generation of pylons went through more than 70 tests, including hitting them with a wing attached to a car and, eventually, Besenyei intentionally striking them with an aeroplane. By the summer of 2003, it was time to race.
Early races: 2003-2004
The Red Bull Air Race had its inaugural season in 2003 with stops in Austria and Hungary, garnering the interest of fans and pilots alike. Although early rules were invented on the fly and judging was by sight only, already the high speed, low altitude and extreme manoeuvrability of the sport demanded fitness and exceptional skill. The elite pilots invited came with whatever they happened to have in the hangar, and a technician was their only teammate. Seven pilots took off, and Hungary’s Besenyei was the first season victor, joined on the podium by Klaus Schrodt (second) and Kirby Chambliss (third).
The series started to go global in 2004, building its reputation for spectacular settings. In a three-race season spanning the UK, Hungary and the USA, Chambliss seized the 2004 crown followed by Besenyei in second, and Britain’s Steve Jones and Germany’s Schrodt in joint third.
Americans ascendant: 2005-2007
In 2005, the Red Bull Air Race was granted World Championship status. The USA’s Mike Mangold was unstoppable, winning five of the seven races to claim the season trophy, while Besenyei took second and Mangold’s compatriot Chambliss finished third.
The tables were turned in 2006, when it was Chambliss in a class of his own, with Mangold slipping to third and Besenyei steady in second. However, Mangold got his redemption in 2007, a season highlighted by the series’ first stop in South America in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While 13 pilots wrestled for the crown, including newcomers Hannes Arch of Austria and Sergey Rakhmanin of Russia, the battle for the title came down to Mangold and Great Britain's Paul Bonhomme. When the rivals ended up even with 47 points each, a tie-breaker awarded top honours to Mangold, who became the first pilot to claim two World Championship titles. Besenyei was on the overall podium for the fifth time in a row with third.
Austrian audacity vs. best of British: 2008-2010
Two names that are now synonymous with the sport came to the fore in 2008-2010: Austria’s Hannes Arch and Britain’s Paul Bonhomme. In 2008, only his second season, Arch used aggressive lines and forward-thinking technology that not only had profound influence in the hangars, but also made him the first European to win the World Championship. The Austrian stood on the podium at seven of the eight stops, his 61 points enough to relegate Paul Bonhomme to runner-up for the second consecutive year. Chambliss was third.
The “Class of 2009” that joined the Red Bull Air Race the following season added the first Asian, Canadian and Australian pilots – Yoshihide Muroya, Pete McLeod and Matt Hall – as well as Matthias Dolderer of Germany. All four would go on to see the view from the World Championship podium; and in fact Hall did so immediately, finishing third overall at season’s end. Arch took an early lead in the 2009 campaign, but Bonhomme’s trademark smooth flying ultimately resulted in three wins that propelled him to his elusive first title. Eight of the 15 pilots earned a race podium at least once, and 11 got at least one top-five finish.
In 2010, Bonhomme became the first pilot to take back-to back World Championships. Arch came a close second, and Britain's other pilot, Nigel Lamb, was third. 2010 was also the year that the Czech Republic’s Martin Sonka made his Air Racing debut – a name destined to loom large in coming seasons.
The Red Bull Air Race took a three-year hiatus, but there was plenty of action behind the scenes, as race organisers worked to revamp the sport. Pilots, race teams and other experts provided key input; rules and regulations were refined; and standardised engines and propellers were introduced to level the playing field and put even more emphasis on skill. When the World Championship was relaunched in 2014, it was more competitive, more compelling and even more safe than before. And it also had a feeder class.
The return: 2014
The return in 2014 hailed a new era for the Red Bull Air Race. With the new rules and standardisations, the team dynamic was more important than ever, and tacticians were becoming a familiar presence in the hangars. When the season kicked off, Bonhomme and Arch were the favorites. But at the third race, a debut in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Britain’s Nigel Lamb claimed his first race win, and he finished second at every subsequent stop. It all came to a head in Spielberg, Austria, when the trio clashed for the overall title. Adding to Great Britain’s legacy, Lamb emerged the victor, and the winglets on his raceplane became the hot new trend in modifications. Also notable: Pete McLeod, Yoshihide Muroya and Martin Sonka claimed their first-ever Red Bull Air Race podiums.
Another 2014 highlight was the introduction of the sport’s feeder class, the Challenger Cup, created to help outstanding pilots develop Air Racing skills that could potentially put them in the World Championship. Eleven pilots took part, with six earning a place in the winner-takes-all final, where Petr Kopfstein was crowned the inaugural Challenger Cup Champion.
Milestones and farewells: 2015
The 2015 season saw Japan host the Red Bull Air Race for the first time, and a crowd of 120,000 turned out to cheer home hero Yoshihide Muroya. Former Challenger Class pilots François Le Vot and Juan Velarde moved up to the Master Class. And the battle for the World Championship came down to Britain's Bonhomme and Australia's Hall, as the Aussie upped his game with his inaugural race win in Spielberg, Austria. The season came to a spectacular close in Las Vegas, when Hall won the race but Bonhomme managed enough points to claim a record third World Championship title, with the Australian second overall and Austria’s Arch third. In the feeder class, French pilot Mika Brageot took the Challenger Cup.
At the season’s close, icon Peter Besenyei announced his retirement, capping a career spanning 10 seasons, eight race wins and the sport’s initial title. Bonhomme also retired, the most successful pilot in the history of the sport with his 19 race wins and three titles.
New heroes: 2016-2018
The departure of Bonhomme and Besenyei threw the World Championship wide open, and the title has changed hands every season since. Matthias Dolderer was first to leap into the gap, dominating 2016 to become the first German World Champion, as well as the first pilot ever to win the title with a race to spare. He clinched the trophy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, USA, which hosted the Red Bull Air Race for the first time, with Hall again on the overall podium in second, and Arch in third. The opening of that 2016 season saw two more graduates of the Challenger Class, the Czech pilot Kopfstein and Slovenia's Peter Podlunsek, join the World Championship, while the season finale witnessed the retirement of Nigel Lamb after 64 races. Florian Bergér took the Challenger Cup, making the season a German double.
In an exhilarating 2017 campaign, two more former Challenger Cup pilots moved up for their first full season in the World Championship, Mika Brageot of France and Chile’s Cristian Bolton. A rivalry for the ages intensified between Sonka and Muroya, while Chambliss won two stops – including Kazan, the first race in Russia – and a powerful Pete McLeod of Canada made it a quartet at the top. At the season finale in Indianapolis, the opening round saw Sonka and Muroya go head to head. Muroya won it despite a penalty, but Sonka progressed as the Fastest Loser, and eventually both made it to the Final 4. Flying the last run of the season, Sonka couldn’t match a track record set by Muroya, and Asia celebrated its first World Championship, with Sonka second and McLeod rounding out the overall podium in third. Florian Bergér became the first pilot to claim back-to-back titles in the Challenger Cup.
The 2018 season was one of the tightest in the World Championship’s history, and among those shaking things up was Ben Murphy, who at seventh overall delivered the best rookie campaign of any other Challenger Class graduate. Going into the final race, just seven points separated the three pilots at head of the standings: American Michael Goulian, the Czech Republic’s Sonka, and Australia’s Hall. For the second year in a row, the World Championship came down to the final run of the last race, and this time, Sonka clinched the title, beating runner-up Hall by just 0.304s as Goulian finished third overall. Winning the Challenger Cup, Luke Czepiela became the first Polish pilot to take a Red Bull Air Race title.
The climax: 2019
The final Red Bull Air Race season, 2019 was condensed to four stops – every one packed with amazing action. For the first time since 2010, World Championship points were awarded for Qualifying, and Japan’s Muroya came storming out of the blocks, taking the maximum 28 points at the season opener by winning Qualifying and the race. Defending titleholder Sonka of the Czech Republic was second, continuing their rivalry. Meanwhile, Australia’s Hall was fifth due to an engine issue, but clearly the season was going to be a battle.
Race two in Kazan, Russia saw Muroya take another win, while Hall was second and Sonka third. Then at race three, a new venue at Hungary’s Lake Balaton, a win from Hall stopped the charge of Muroya, who finished in 12th as Sonka took fourth. Balaton marked a milestone for Britain’s Murphy, who claimed his first career podium in second.
Going into the season finale, Sonka was leading Hall by four points and Muroya by 10. Sonka expanded his advantage by two more points in Qualifying, but he had a disastrous first-round penalty on Race Day. That left Muroya and Hall to fight for the title. In the Final 4, if Hall could finish at least third, the World Championship would be his. Muroya set a blistering time of 58.630s, but Hall had some breathing room thanks to a penalty-filled run by Canada’s Pete McLeod. The Australian did just enough to claim third place and the World Championship, while Muroya clinched his third career home win.
In a revised format for the Challenger Class, 12 pilots competed in three races each, including double-headers at two stops, and the focus was on individual wins rather than a season Challenger Cup trophy. Kenny Chiang of Hong Kong, Dario Costa of Italy and Daniel Ryfa of Sweden each earned one race victory, but the biggest winner in the feeder class was Germany’s Bergér, who triumphed in all three of his races.