Juan Velarde found the perfect bookends to his Red Bull Air Race season in 2017: claiming a pair of podiums – the first of his career – at the opener and the finale. One of Spain’s top pilots, Velarde first became familiar to Air Racing aficionados when he excelled in the inaugural Challenger Cup season (2014).
Velarde is known for his warm smile – even when, as one of the tallest pilots in the field, he squeezes his 189-centimetre (6’2”) frame into the tiny raceplane cockpit. When he’s not racing, the Madrid native is an Airbus A330 captain. He studied for his pilot licences in Alaska, Florida and Madrid, and he worked towing gliders, as a freight pilot and as a flight instructor before signing on with Iberia at just 22 years of age.
Velarde began flying aerobatics in 1999 and later joined the Spanish National Aerobatic Team, with highlights including a team silver medal at the World Aerobatics Championships, three medals at the European Aerobatics Championships and the individual Spanish national Overall Aerobatics Championship. For over a decade he has been recognised by the Spanish Sports Council as one of the country’s Elite Sportsmen, and he also has a passion for flying vintage aircraft.
Velarde’s 2015 Air Racing season was all about gaining experience. In 2016, Team Velarde put that experience into action, winning Qualifying at Spielberg and securing a spot in the Round of 8 at Chiba, Budapest and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Then in 2017 came those breakthrough podiums: second place at Abu Dhabi and third place at Indianapolis.
While Team Velarde didn’t return to the podium in 2018, they came close at the stop in Kazan, Russia, as Velarde delivered the third-best time in Qualifying and made it to the Final 4, finishing just a half second off the pace of the winner. More important, the team showed increased consistency through the season, with advancements to the Round of 8 in well over 60 per cent of their races.
“I am very optimistic about this season and more motivated than ever. I think the most important part is having a good team, to gather the right people,” Velarde says. “Our team is solid and well structured, we have sponsors that support us, and we believe in our own capabilities. I’m sure we will have to face difficulties and new challenges, but I’m confident we are ready to fight for the top positions.”