Defending champion Paul Bonhomme of Britain won the first Red Bull Air Race of the 2010 season in Abu Dhabi on Saturday with a hard-fought victory in scorching heat, finishing just ahead of compatriot Nigel Lamb (2nd) and Hungary’s Peter Besenyei (3rd) in an eventful battle on the Arabian Gulf. Austria’s Hannes Arch finished a disappointing 11th after posting the fastest Qualifying time on Friday.

Arch, who had won the Abu Dhabi season opener last year and was the favourite going in after winning the one Qualifying point on Friday, was disqualified in the Top 12 round for dangerous flying, his first and only flight. Many other front-runners were also knocked out early on a day of upsets due to disqualifications or technical malfunctions. With temperatures rising above 40 degrees and the strong desert winds suddenly shifting direction just hours before the race, the 2010 season opener over the Arabian Gulf turned into one of the most challenging races in the six-year history of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

Red Bull Air Race 2010 -  Abu Dhabi

Red Bull Air Race 2010 - Abu Dhabi

Michael Goulian took a strong fourth place but the American’s day nevertheless ended in disappointment as well when he was unable to fly in the final round of four due to technical problems. Canada’s Pete McLeod, a rookie last year, got a career-best fifth place. Australia’s Matt Hall was flying well and poised for a spot on the podium but was also forced to retire ahead of the Super 8 round with a technical problem that dropped him to eighth place.

Red Bull Air Race 2010 - Paul Bonhomme

It’s a great start to the new year,” said Bonhomme, who took 12 points for his 12th career victory – and fourth in the last five races going back to last season. Bonhomme, like fellow veterans Lamb and Besenyei, was a master of the difficult weather conditions and managed to stay calm despite some extraordinary pressure.

“It’s fascinating what we’ve seen today. The wind changes direction and it sorts everyone out. The temperature was also a factor. To keep your concentration up in these conditions is quite a task. I don’t think it’s a coincidence (that the race’s most experienced pilots were on the podium). Experience helps on days like today. You have to keep an eye on what happens and play the tactics just right.”

Red Bull Air Race 2010 - Nigel Lamb

Red Bull Air Race 2010 - Nigel Lamb

And Besenyei, who had both struggled somewhat in fair weather training earlier in the week, also rose to the occasion of the heat and treacherous winds, full of sand as they gusted out of the desert.

Red Bull Air Race 2010 - Winners Podium

Red Bull Air Race 2010 - Winners Podium

“Today was a day of race tactics and strategy,” said Lamb, adding he hoped to make a habit of getting on the podium after taking an identical second place in Barcelona. “It would be a great habit to have. But one would be deluded to think it’s goig to be easy. There are at least 12 pilots this year who have been putting in times that are within a few seconds of each other. It’s going to be a very interesting season.”

Arch was clearly upset with the disqualification. He said: “I don’t have a clue about what the stewards saw,” said Arch. “It was a normal racing situation. Judging like that is a concern for the sport. That’s going to have a negative effect on the world championship.”

The first race of the 2010 season was also a learning experience for the two rookies. Martin Sonka of the Czech Republic, who celebrated his 32nd birthday with a strong performance in Qualifying on Friday, picked up 20 penalty points on Saturday and ended up 13th. Brazil’s Adilson Kindlemann had an even more eventful race, picking up 28 penalty points including 12 for hitting two Air Gates.