Nicolas Ivanoff of France (C), Matthias Dolderer of Germany (L), Francois Le Vot of France (R) celebrate during the Award Ceremony of the first stage of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on March 12, 2016. // Joerg Mitter / Red Bull Content Pool

Nicolas Ivanoff of France (C), Matthias Dolderer of Germany (L), Francois Le Vot of France (R) celebrate during the Award Ceremony of the first stage of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on March 12, 2016. // Joerg Mitter / Red Bull Content Pool

The season kickoff of the 2016 Red Bull Air Race World Championship turned expectations upside-down, including the favorite finishing 9th and the bottom-ranked pilot earning his first-ever podium. This year’s title is going to be the most fiercely contended yet.

Abu Dhabi (UAE) – The first race of the 2016 Red Bull Air Race World Championship was even hotter than expected in sizzling Abu Dhabi on Saturday, as Nicolas Ivanoff of France blazed through the pylons to victory in a close and frequently astonishing competition. Claiming the early lead in what’s setting up to be an especially fierce title battle, Ivanoff’s time of 58.550 was barely a tenth of a second faster than Matthias Dolderer of Germany in second place (58.660). François Le Vot of France, who is beginning only his second season and was ranked 14th, captured his first career podium with 1:02.281 for third place.

With the retirement of 2015 World Champion Paul Bonhomme, the 2016 title for the world’s ultimate motorsport series in the sky is anyone’s to seize, and the heat was on. The day was packed with shocks: Matt Hall of Australia, who was ranked number one after finishing second overall last year, hit a pylon and failed to advance beyond the opening round for only the third time in his career. Another top favorite, 2008 World Champion Hannes Arch, gave fans a similar surprise after flying brilliantly through the early rounds only to earn a disqualification in the Final 4 for passing the Safety Line. Subsequently, he was awarded 0 points.

The season-opening victory makes Ivanoff the early leader in the points as the campaign for the World Championship begins across seven more races in six countries. “I propose we end the season right now,” joked the Team Hamilton pilot. “Actually, we worked really hard for this in training and I was not stressed coming into the race – but I knew we had to be really careful. I’m very happy for my team and my fans.”

Tickets for all stops of the 2016 Red Bull Air Race World Championship – including the next race in Spielberg, Austria on 23-24 April – are on sale now. For more information on tickets and all the latest, visit www.redbullairrace.com

Results Master Class Abu Dhabi: 1. Nicolas Ivanoff (FRA), 2. Matthias Dolderer (GER), 3. François Le Vot (FRA), 4. Hannes Arch (AUT), 5. Kirby Chambliss (USA), 6. Michael Goulian (USA), 7. Pete McLeod (CAN), 8. Yoshihide Muroya (JPN), 9. Matt Hall (AUS), 10. Juan Velarde (ESP), 11. Nigel Lamb (GBR) , 12. Peter Podlunšek (SLO), 13. Petr Kopfstein (CZE) , 14. Martin Šonka (CZE)
World Championship Standings: 1. Nicolas Ivanoff (FRA) 15 points, 2. Matthias Dolderer (GER) 12 pts, 3. François Le Vot (FRA) 9 pts, 4. Kirby Chambliss (USA) 6 pts, 5. Michael Goulian (USA) 5 pts, 6. Pete McLeod (CAN) 4 pts, 7. Yoshihide Muroya (JPN) 3 pts, 8. Matt Hall (AUS) 2 pts, 9. Juan Velarde (ESP) 1 pt, 10. Hannes Arch (AUT),  11. Nigel Lamb (GBR), 12. Peter Podlunšek (SLO), 13. Petr Kopfstein (CZE), 14. Martin Šonka (CZE)