The Difficulty Of Becoming A Back-To-Back Champ
Only one pilot has ever successfully defended the Red Bull Air Race World Championship title, but Czech star Martin Sonka could become the second. To do so, he’ll have to hold on to his nerve, and hold off two of his top rivals.
Sonka took his first title, and the first-ever for the Czech Republic, at the 2018 season finale, winning by just 0.304s. And now, with one race of the season remaining, he is four points clear at the top of the standings. But he hesitates to comment about the likelihood of carrying off a repeat crown, stating quietly, “It would be great, but I don’t want to speak about becoming double World Champion…”
Sonka’s reluctance is understandable. Since the Red Bull Air Race began in 2003, only one pilot – Paul Bonhomme – has managed to win season titles back-to-back. While others have tried, and even come close, it seems that the pressure becomes too much.
Air Race legend Peter Besenyei won the series title in the inaugural 2003 season and then came second in 2004, 2005 and 2006. He was never able to claim the top spot again. The USA’s Kirby Chambliss has also come close – he took the title in 2004, but slipped to third place overall in 2005. He did climb back to claim the World Championship in 2006, but then in 2007 finished fourth overall. Chambliss feels that being on a roll is key, but it can take a lot out of the team. “I would say it's good to have the momentum [of a title win], but I think it's also really important to set the right tone for the new season when you come back into it. You have to keep that knowledge deep down that you can do it,” he shares.
Fellow American Mike Mangold had a similar experience, winning in both 2005 and 2007, but managing only third in 2006 and then fourth in 2008, the year that Austria’s Hannes Arch became World Champion. While Arch remained in the podium mix for the rest of his career, he followed up with three second places overall, and subsequently two third place results.
And then there is Bonhomme. He finished frustratingly close to an overall win as a runner-up in both 2007 and 2008, but finally managed to take the title in 2009. The triumph was followed by a historic second title the following season, giving the British ace his singular status as the only pilot in Red Bull Air Race history to be crowned World Champion two years in a row. Bonhomme remarked that he managed this feat by: “Wiping the slate clean. As soon as 1 January 2010 began, we forgot all about what happened in 2009 and started again.”
After the sport took a three-year hiatus Nigel Lamb was crowned the 2014 World Champion. But the 2015 season belonged to Bonhomme once again, and having claimed the trophy a third time, he retired on top.
In 2016 it was Matthias Dolderer’s turn. He stormed through the season, clinching the title with a race to spare, but like Lamb, he struggled in his next campaign and finished seventh. "For sure, there is more pressure on you – from yourself, from your team, from your partners, from the media, from your friends, from the fans, from everyone," Dolderer notes. "If you don't perform at the first races, everyone says, 'Hey, you're losing’; they don't say, 'Well done for making the Final 4, or second or third.' The expectation is a lot higher.” The German continues, "Also one thing is 'how do you refocus?' You have to reset completely, because a new season starts and the cards are reshuffled. Nothing is guaranteed and everyone is getting better and better. The times are very close.”
While Dolderer was facing those issues in 2017, Yoshihide Muroya was soaring, earning the title after winning four of the eight races. But again, the following year Muroya could claim only two second place finishes and ended the season fifth overall behind the new World Champion Sonka. Now, in 2019, the Japanese pilot appears to have found his hunger to win again.
So it is no wonder that Sonka is wary of predicting victory despite his four-point lead. After all, in 2017, the Czech pilot went into the season finale with a four-point advantage over Muroya, only to have Muroya win the race and seize the title. This year, the man four points behind Sonka in second overall is Australia’s Matt Hall, who has a deep hunger of his own after finishing runner-up in the World Championship three times previously. Muroya, meanwhile, is 10 points off the top but still on the title hunt in third place, and all three rivals are keenly aware that a 2019 rule awards World Championship points to the top three in Qualifying, making it possible to extend or narrow the gap even before Race Day kicks off.
Although he is always formidable, Sonka has not won a race this season, and at the most recent stop, a July showdown in Lake Balaton, Hungary, he had a very uncharacteristic Race Day pylon hit – his first since the 2017 finale. Could the pressure be getting to the reigning champ?
“To have the lead is great, but it’s just four points and there are 28 points on the table, so we have to focus on the next race,” Sonka says pragmatically. But he does admit that it would be fantastic to successfully defend his crown and join Bonhomme’s elite club. “It would be awesome and beautiful, but it’s somewhere in the back,” Sonka confides. “I’m just focusing on the flying.”
Tickets are still available for the season finale in Chiba on 7-8 September, get yours HERE to see if Sonka can win back-to-back championships!