The rivalries of the Air Race

We look back at some of the best high stakes head to head battles

In the Red Bull Air Race’s illustrious history, we’ve seen 10 different pilots claim the title, 14 pilots win races and 23 pilots step on the podium over the 94 races. 

In that time there have been battles between pilots that have been epic, and some of which endured for seasons. Here are some of the best ones….

Paul Bonhomme Vs Hannes Arch 
Seasons of rivalry
: 2008-2015
Hannes Arch joined the Red Bull Air Race in 2007 and immediately started making waves. Paul Bonhomme in that year lost the World Championship in a tie-breaker at the final races of the season. He and Mike Mangold both finished on 47 points, but Mangold took the title, so when 2008 rolled around Bonhomme wanted the title for himself.  

Bonhomme started the season with a win in Abu Dhabi, but Arch was in second, setting the wheels in motion for a season-long battle. Arch’s lowest position all season was fourth. It was close until the penultimate race in Porto, where Bonhomme could only manage to finish 10th. Bonhomme won the final race, but with Arch finishing third, the Austrian took the title. 

Bonhomme, not being one to take losing well, fought back in 2009. Bonhomme finished first or second in every race and was unstoppable. Arch chased all the way, but finished seven points behind. 

2010 was a similar story, but closer. Arch won four of the six races, Bonhomme won two. Arch finished 11th at the season opener and that ultimately cost him his second title. 

The two battled again in 2015, but aside from two wins, Arch was unable to get close to Bonhomme. The British pilot had Matt Hall to battle instead. At the close of the 2015 season, Bonhomme claimed his historic third World Championship and then retired at the top, ending the rivalry. 

“Now that I look back on the rivalries, I enjoyed them, but I remember not enjoying them at the time,” said Bonhomme. “At the time I kept thinking ‘why do they have to be so quick?’ and ‘why are they getting in my way?’, but for the sport they were spectacular. Racing against Hannes and Matt was always interesting, and bloody hard work as well!”.

Paul Bonhomme vs Matt Hall
Seasons of rivalry
: 2015
This rivalry was tense from the moment the season started in Abu Dhabi. Both Hall and Bonhomme were in the Final 4 and Hall had set a blistering time of 57.871s, and was looking to take his first career win. Bonhomme was last to fly and the sultan of smooth was able to shave 0.084s from Hall’s time, claiming the first win of the season.

It was a similiar story at race two in Chiba, but a rare slip from Bonhomme in Rovinj saw him finish eighth. Hall capitalised by finishing third. But at the halfway stage in Budapest, Hall was unable to make it to the Final 4, finishing second behind Arch.

Race five in Ascot saw another first for Bonhomme and second for Hall. In Spielberg at race six, Hall took his first career win, beating Bonhomme into second place by just 0.057s. And the roles reversed again at the penultimate race. Meaning that if Bonhomme made it into the Final 4 he would be World Champion. He did, but Hall took the race win.

“2015 was the most memorable because I was in it with Paul right from the start of the season,” said Hall. “We both were on the podium seven times, and towards the end for the year, he won one, then I’d win one. It was a tag team battle. I knew Paul had won the World Championship by the time he had got to the Final 4, because he had an eight-point lead. I still went out and won the race, even though I knew I couldn’t be World Champion.”

Bonhomme, after being a very secretive pilot in terms of tactics, now reveals how he used to try and beat his opponents: “I looked at why they were good. Instead of looking at my mistakes, I looked at what I did well, and then look at what Hannes and Matt did well and copy that – I did that a lot.” 

Matt Hall vs Matthias Dolderer
Seasons of rivalry
: 2016
After coming so close to the title in 2015, and with Bonhomme retiring, Hall was the favourite to take the title in 2016. But at the season opener Hall could only finish ninth. Nicolas Ivanoff took the win, but Matthias Dolderer came second. For many years experts had pointed to Dolderer to be World Champion, if only he could stay consistent. 

At the second race in Spielberg, Dolderer claimed his first career win, but Hall had another poor result, finishing fifth. At the third race of the season Dolderer had his only slip, finishing eighth. But Hall couldn’t take advantage and finished seventh. It was then revealed Hall was suffering from a back and neck injury, which left him unable to pull the maximum-G in a comfortable fashion. 

By Budapest, Hall had rehabbed and was back to full fitness, and he was able to finish third. Dolderer won, but the fight was on. Hall took the next two race wins, but Dolderer had found that consistency and was able to take the World Championship with a race to spare.

“It was a special rivalry in 2016,” explained Dolderer. “We had trained together to get into the Red Bull Air Race, we flew in championships together before the Air Race. We have common interests and even the same names! We’re also good friends and it was cool to battle each other. Matt was the first person to congratulate me. It was something special.”

Yoshihide Muroya vs Martin Sonka
Seasons of rivalry
: 2017-2019
In 2017, a new rivalry began. Across the eight-race season, the overall lead changed six times, mostly seesawing between Czech pilot Martin Sonka and Japan’s Yoshihide Muroya.

At the opener, Sonka took his career-first race win. But the Japanese pilot turned things around at stop two, defeating Sonka in a Round of 8 head-to-head and claiming his own win. During the sixth stop they locked horns in another faceoff, and this time, Sonka advanced and won the race.

At season’s penultimate showdown, Muroya won the day, but Sonka’s third place kept him at the top of the overall standings. The Indianapolis climax saw Sonka and Muroya going head-to-head in the Round of 14. Muroya incurred a two-second penalty – but then his Czech opponent hit a pylon for a three-second penalty that moved Japan’s hero to the Round of 8, while Sonka too advanced as the round’s fastest loser. Eventually, they met in the Final 4. There, Muroya flew to a new track record that Sonka couldn’t match, and Asia’s first Red Bull Air Race World Championship belonged to Muroya.

“It pushed me harder,” said Muroya. “We checked his flights, and maybe they checked mine. And that made all of us compete at a higher level – without it the competition would be boring. Without Martin, it would’ve been boring.”

2018 was Sonka’s turn. Muroya gave him a battle on occasion, but Matt Hall and Michael Goulian pushed Sonka to the limit in 2018. Going into the final race, Goulian was leading, but Sonka, in a reverse of 2017, caught up the points and was able to take the title. 

Sonka and Muroya were neck and neck from the beginning of the 2019 season, with Muroya coming out on top at the first two races while Sonka stayed within striking distance, thanks to podium finishes at both. However, at race three, Muroya finished 12th, putting Sonka at the top of the standings with just the final race to go. And even though the two battled to the end and Muroya won the race, it was Hall who was ultimately crowned World Champion. 

“It’s been incredible and not just with Yoshi, but last year with Mikey and Matt. The rivalry is just part of our sport and it’s extra fuel. It pushes us on,” concluded Sonka. 


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