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2014 UK Airshows : REVIEW

Red Bull Air Race: Ascot

After a break of five years, the Red Bull Air Race returned to the UK at a new venue, the historic racecourse at Ascot in Berkshire. Since the sport's last venture in the UK along the River Thames in East London, the racing has evolved with new rules and much improved safety but has lost none of its drama and intrigue as the top 12 pilots in the world battle it out through the pylons.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography copyright of the Author.

Three venues have preceded Ascot in hosting a UK round of the Red Bull Air Race. The very first, very simple race was held as part a Kemble Air Day and was certainly more novelty than any great sporting fixture. The Race Series then re-appeared as its own event at Longleat in the Wiltshire Countryside. It was a great venue for the Race with the rolling Wiltshire countryside and open spaces allowing for a unique course. However, the development of the aircraft was still in its infancy and the series as a whole was yet to really gel as a major sport.

By the time the Air Race appeared in London, it had really stepped up a gear. All the competing pilots were now flying competitive aircraft and it had finally started to gain meaningful television coverage in the UK. 2009 saw the last round of the Red Bull Air Race to be held in the UK and the series was put on hold following the 2011 season while the organisers looked into the safety following an accident and a very near miss during that year.

However, 2014 has seen the Air Race burst back onto the scene with some subtle but important tweaks. Now, all aircraft run an identical engine and propeller and all conform to weight restrictions. However the pilots do have a choice of aircraft types. The Zivko Edge 540 in its V2 and V3 forms remains the most popular aircraft, but the MXS-R is now right up there having recently won the Malaysian round with the UK's Nigel Lamb. Peter Besenyei is currently racing and developing a third type, the Hungarian Corvus Racer which is a very pretty aircraft indeed.

During each flight, there is a maximum entry speed and pilots must not exceed 10G otherwise they get disqualified from the run. The now iconic inflatable pylons are taller and have noticeable red bands through which the aircraft have to pass otherwise they incur time penalties.

Another new concept for the 2014 season is the introduction of the Challenger Cup Series. This, rather like GP2 in motorsport, is aimed at bringing on a new generation of Air Race pilots allowing them to race on a restricted licence. Like GP2, the Challenger Cup pilots have identical machinery in the form of the Extra 330LX which are run by Red Bull themselves rather than separate teams. They compete over the same course as the Master Class, but miss out the chicane pylons and also get two timed runs in their race rather than the knockout competition.

The move to Ascot certainly raised a few eye-brows. Being so close to London Heathrow Airport and Windsor Castle many were wondering how it would all work. The answer? Brilliantly!

Following major development, Ascot is now one of the finest Sporting venues in the country. The facilities are certainly second to none and certainly gave the Air Race organisers more possibilities than London. The Parade Ring and concourse became a Red Bull Athletes Arena with displays of various Red Bull sports including trials bike, BMX and free-running all getting into the spotlight. A great touch was to keep many of the traditions of Ascot Race Meetings; the Ascot Guard wearing their Bowler Hats were out and about performing their stewarding duties and the race day also saw the Air Race pilots arrive in the Parade Ring by Horse Drawn Carriages.

As well as the racing, the event also saw some flying displays in the very restrictive airspace. Not only is Heathrow very close by, but three sides of Ascot Racecourse are bounded by built up areas. The RAF Chinook HC2 was a great choice to represent the military at the event. In such a tight venue the display was even more spectacular showing off the impressive agility of the big transport helicopter.

The Old Flying Machine Company's Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434 also made a welcome appearance flying a low routine of tight turns. It was a great link to the racing - not only do the British pilots competing in the series and Race Director, namely Paul Bonhomme, Nigel Lamb and Steve Jones, regularly display MH434; but the Supermarine Aircraft Company made its name with the RJ Mitchell designed S5 and S6 seaplanes in the Schneider Trophy Air Races.

Breitling are heavily involved in the Air Race World Series as the official timekeepers so it was highly appropriate to see the Breitling Wingwalkers take part with a highly modified routine to fit in over Ascot. Sunday's finals also saw a flypast by the Red Arrows.

Both the Challenger Cup and Master Class rounds of the Air Race are fast paces affairs, but it is enthralling to watch whatever your level of interest in aviation. Much of the TV coverage telemetry is live to watch on the big screens so the live audience don't miss out on the action. The weekend was certainly a good one for the British audience. In Saturday's Challenger Cup, Tom Bennett took a very good second place just behind Halim Othman of Malaysia who set an almost unbeatable time.

The Master Class was even more dramatic. Increasingly gusty winds on the Saturday made things particularly difficult. Paul Bonhomme ended up eighth after a disappointing qualification with the only consolation being that his championship rival Hannes Arch was finding it very difficult to adjust to the Ascot course. Nigel Lamb in the winglet equipped MXS-R fared better with third place in the qualification and some very consistent times.

Saturday started as Sunday left off with Bonhomme still struggling to nail a competitive time which meant he lost his opening duel with Matthias Dolderer and only progressed to the Super 8 as one of the fastest losers. Then, in perhaps one of the most dramatic comebacks in the sport everything changed and he soon found himself in the final four facing Nigel Lamb, Matthias Dolderer and Nicholas Ivanoff. Paul flew first and set a blistering time, but would be enough? The crowd were treated to all the drama of watching all of competitors go faster in the first part of the course before fading in the final stages with Nigel Lamb coming a very close second. It made for an incredible atmosphere and the perfect result for the UK round with the home crowd racing the roof!

Ascot certainly proved any doubters wrong and proved to be one of the best ever venues for the Red Bull Air Race. Red Bull themselves created easily one of the best atmospheres of any aviation event which was only enhanced by the superb flying by the competitors. We certainly hope Red Bull Air Race is back at Ascot very soon.

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