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Last weekend the Abu Dhabi race opened the 2018 edition of the Red Bull Air Race. After this fantastic opening the fans of that successful air race formula hope this season would be at least as exciting as it was in 2017. Today we are approximately two months from the next race, which would be for the first time organized in Cannes – and waiting for the French Riviera race might be the opportunity to review the race formula and the rules of Red Bull Air Race.

The final pre-flight check – Michael Goulian.

Challenger Cup.

The Challenger Cup is relatively new addition to the Air Race competition as it started in 2014, when the new Red Bull Air Race formula was introduced. The idea of the Cup is to create the perfect training environment for the pilots who would like to get their Master Class licence and compete in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

The Cup is organized at every Air Race location, the pilots are flying before the main race, using the same, although sometimes simplified, track as the Master Class pilots are competing on. During the Challenger races from 1 to 7 up to eight pilots may compete in the run, as there is no need for the Challenger Class pilot to participate in all rounds (however there is the minimum requirement of four races to be finished by each pilot). The competition is based on time, the fastest pilot on the track wins. After each race the score points are awarded, and they determine the final standings after seven rounds of the Cup. The winner of each race receives 10 points, the second one 8 points, then the third 6 points, the fourth 4 and the fifth pilot receives 2 points.

Challenger Cup Extra 330 on thr race track, season 2017.

At the end of the season the four best round results of each Challenger Cup pilot are added together creating the standing for the final race. The six best pilots from the ranking can compete in the final, 8th race of the Cup and the points from the final round are added to the points collected during the season – then the pilot with the highest total score wins the Cup.

The Challenger Cup pilots are all flying the same airplane throughout the race season. Until the 2017 edition it was one of the most popular aerobatic airplanes in the world – Extra 330LX. In the current season Extra was replaced by the airplane being the favourite choice among the Master Class pilots, Zivko Edge 540 V2. The new airplane already managed to add the power and swiftness to the competition, making it more exciting and bringing it closer to the Master Class series.

Challenger Cup Extra 330 flying the Chicane, season 2017.

There are ten pilots in the Challenger Cup during the 2018 season, with Italy and South Africa making their debut in the Air Race (thanks to Dario Costa and Patrick Davidson who joined the competition this year) and including the only woman in the race – Melanie Astles from France.

Master Class.

The fourteen Master Class pilots are competing each year to win the Red Bull Air Race World Champion title. They are flying eight races during the season, the competition is time-based, and after each race the pilots are awarded with points, using the following system: 1st place 15 points, 2nd – 12, 3rd – 9, 4th – 7, 5th – 6, 6th – 5, 7th – 4, 8th – 3, 9th – 2 and 10th place 1 point. The pilot with the highest total score after all eight rounds wins the Air Race and becomes the World Champion.

Mikaël Brageot at the Chicane, 2017.

The race track is usually 6 km long and is defined by the Air Race pylons, designed especially for the Red Bull Air Race purposes. Two pylons together make the Air Gate and there are usually three or four of them on the track, then there is a special chequered Start/Final Gate and a line of three pylons named Chicane. The pilots must fly through the all Air Gates horizontally and the Chicane must be flown in the slalom style. The distance between the pylons in the Air Gate is 13 metres and the flight window are marked by the red-coloured part of the pylons. During each round of the race the pilots are flying two laps on the track, the fastest lap is counted. The timing starts and ends when the airplane enters the Start/Finish gate.

Cristian Bolton on the race track with the Start/Finish Gate in the background.

The race commences with the Qualifying Day, there are free practice on the track allowed at the beginning of the day and then the official qualifications follow. The Master Class pilots starts for the qualifying round in the reverse order of the current Air Race standings, the results of the Qualifying Round determine the pair order of the Round of 14.

The second day of the round is called Race Day. It usually starts with the Challenger Cup followed by the Master Class competition which consists of three runs: Round of 14, Round of 8 and Final 4.

James ´Jimbo´ Reed, the Technical Director and Matthias Dolderer.

All Master Class pilots participate in the Round of 14, they are competing in pairs, the faster pilot in the pair wins and advances to the next round. Those pairs are created based on the Qualification Round results with the fastest pilot of the qualification flying the pair with the slowest one, then the second pilot is flying together with the second to last and so forth. Certainly, during the flying session there may be only one airplane on the race track at the same time.

The winners of each pair together with the fastest loser from the Round of 14 advances to the next run, the Round of 8. They again compete in pairs that are created in the same way as in the previous round but now following the Round of 14 results, of course. And once more, the faster pilot in the pair wins and survives to the next round.

Michael Goulian entering the Chicane, 2017.

In the Final 4 there are no pairs, the competing pilots are flying one by one and the pilot with the fastest time of all four wins the race.

Almost all pilots of the Master Class are flying the Edge 540 airplane, both the V2 and V3 variants. The only pilot that made the different choice is Mikaël Brageot – during the 2017 and 2018 seasons this French pilot is flying the “Edge beater”: the special race-purposed MXS-R airplane, produced by MX Aircraft.

With the implementation of the new race formula in 2014, the engines and propellers were standardised. The Lycoming Thunderbolt AEIO-540-EXP engine with the Hartzell 3-bladed 7690 structural composite propeller were chosen for the Air Race airplanes. This way the airplane modifications are basically limited to drag reduction and the aerodynamics improvements. 

Mikaël Brageot and his “Edge beater” in 2017 season.

Penalties.

The general rule of the Air Race is that the fastest pilot wins, but this doesn´t mean that speed is the only key to win. The race formula prefers the pilots that are both fast and precise, together with the focus on the safety of the participants and the spectators. Any failure results in the penalty added to the official lap time or even in disqualification from the race, if there is a serious violation of the rules.

The situations that lead to the exclusion from the race are divided into four groups:

DNS (Did Not Start) – all pilots have their dedicated time slots to start the race, if they miss the slot and not begin the race, there is a DNS. If the pilot is not able to take off for the race, regardless the reason, there is also a DNS.

DNF (Did Not Finish) – The pilot is asked to leave the track (and receives no points) when:

  • the Master Class pilot exceeds the 12G limit for any length of time (Challenger Class – 11G for any length of time)
  • if the measured speed at the Start Gate is exceeding 202 knots,
  • if there is a significant deviation from the course,
  • if the pylons were touched three times during one round.

DQ (Disqualification) – there are several failures that result in disqualification from the race:

  • uncontrolled steering during the flight,
  • flying lower than 10 meters height between the gates,
  • crossing the safety line,
  • entering the track at a pitch angle greater than 45⁰,
  • ignoring the commands of the Race Director.
  • additionally, the pilot may be disqualified before and after the race because of the technical control of the aircraft and if the weight of the airplane with the pilot is beyond the 696kg limit.

SCO (Safety Climb Out) – when pilot decides to leave the track for any reason or if this was advised by the Race Control. There is no possibility to repeat the run or go back to the track after SCO, so the result is the same as DQ.

Race Controll team is carefully watching every run.

Apart from those significant failures the small mistakes usually conclude in the additional seconds added to the final lap result:

  • exceeding the start speed limit (the maximum allowed speed is 200 knots):
  • more than 200 knots but less than 202 knots result in a 1 second penalty,
  • 202 knots or more is a DNF.
  • incorrect level of flying in the Air Gate, any angle, climbing or sinking results in 2 seconds penalty,
  • incorrect vertical turn (when returning to the track after the first lap), small deviation from the course is 1 second penalty, significant violation results in DNF,
  • exceeding the maximum load factor of 10G, regardless the time, results in 2 seconds penalty (change from the 2018 season, previously there was a limit of 0,6 second), more than 12G (11G for the Challenger Class) is a DNF,
  • flying too high in the gate, but still following the track, results in 2 seconds penalty,
  • pylon hit:
  • first hit is a 3 seconds penalty,
  • second hit means another 3 seconds penalty
  • third hit means DNF.
  • Insufficient smoke (after the “Smoke On” command until passing the Final Gate), regardless the reason, is a 1 second penalty.

Jim DiMatteo, the Race Director, is explaning how the Race Controll works.

The Race Control tower is following each aircraft flying the race track. All information from the cameras, timing system and the Engine Monitoring system are checked and analysed during the round and afterwards. Any failure or violation of the safety rules that results in disqualification from the race means no points are awarded – and this may have the serious impact on the final Air Race standings.

Pete McLeod on the track, season 2017.

The timing system used in the Red Bull Air Race, consisting of laser scans, transponders mounted in the airplanes and high precision cameras, can measure the results with the 1/10000s accuracy. This seems to be incredible precise, but sometimes during the race the pilots are getting close to this accuracy limit.

Nevertheless, the race regulations are prepared even for the event of a tie. If the tie happens during the Qualification Round, the involved pilots would be ranked according to their current standing in the Air Race. In the case of the tie during the following rounds, the respective pilots are ranked following their results from the last valid flying session.

The last maintenance before the race – Nicolas Ivanoff´s hangar.

On the track – Yoshihide Muroya.

Matt Hall.

Michael Goulian.

Martin Šonka takes off for the race.