Teamwork and 0.003s end slump for Muroya
It was as if 2018 never happened: At the Red Bull Air Race opener in Abu Dhabi last weekend, Yoshihide Muroya won his first race since closing out the 2017 season with a World Championship-clinching victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What put him back on top? And with his arch-rival Martin Sonka only 0.003s behind – the closest finish in the history of the Red Bull Air Race – can Japan’s hero hold the lead through the seven remaining races?
The results in Abu Dhabi were exactly what Muroya had been waiting for. First, on Friday, he flew fastest in Qualifying, already putting himself at the top of the overall leaderboard thanks to a new rule that awards World Championship points to the top Qualifying finishers.
“I like Qualifying. There is less luck involved than Race Day because it’s just simple, go fast. So you get an indication of the raceplane’s abilities and the pilot’s performance, and you can determine which team is really strong,” Muroya said. “We were happy to have that initial result.”
Muroya did finish a solid fifth overall in 2018, but a tally of just two podiums, both second place, came as a surprise after winning 50 per cent of his races in his World Championship season. In five of his eight 2018 races, penalties were a factor, including the blow of Did Not Finish penalties for two races in a row – including his home stop in Chiba – due to Exceeding Maximum G.
At Saturday’s race in Abu Dhabi, a 2019 revision to the rules regarding the G-force limit had all the pilots working to change their ingrained muscle memory, especially in the Vertical Turning Manoeuvre. Plus, an unpredicted 180-degree shift in wind direction had caught most race teams off guard. But because Muroya was last to fly in the Round of 14, his tactician was able to give him a heads up, and his initial runs were flawless.
When Nicolas Ivanoff had engine issues in the Final 4, Muroya was first to fly – a strategic disadvantage because he could not gauge how much risk to take based on the times of his opponents. His 53.780s was his fastest time of the day, but fans were holding their breath, knowing that Sonka had flown 53.512s in the Round of 14. When the Czech pilot clocked 53.783s, the 0.003s difference equated to the length of a desk ruler – just 30cm, or 12in.
Crediting his team and supporters, Muroya said, “Flight quality was good from Free Practice to the Final, and it worked superbly well from the beginning to the end. This makes it very easy for me to fly consistently, and I don’t need to push too much. I think that’s what made this result.”
Muroya and Sonka have been duelling since the Czech ace joined the lineup in 2010, a year after Muroya’s debut. Sonka now finds himself six points behind the new leader, just slightly more than the four points that made him runner-up to Muroya for the 2017 title. As the two most recent World Champions, the renewal of their rivalry has fans buzzing. However, Muroya pointed out that they have 12 other top competitors to face as well. “This feels normal. Like 2017,” he shared. “But all the pilots are really fast, and you cannot relax in any matchups. It’s not easy.”