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The Red Bull Air Race World Series is rapidly growing in popularity globally thanks to some superb TV and media coverage. For the last couple of years, the UK leg has been held at Longleat, but in 2007 the Air Race moved to London with spectacular results. Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography copyright of author.

Army  Openers
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Klaus Shrodt - Germany
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Sergey Rakhmanin - Russia
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Nicolas Ivanoff - France
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Hannes Arch - Austria
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Frank Versteegh - Netherlands
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Peter Besenyei - Hungary
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Mike Mangold - USA
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Covering the Action
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Nigel Lamb - Great Britain
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Alejandro Maclean - Spain
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Steve Jones - Great Britain
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Kirby Chambliss - USA
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Paul Bonhomme - Great Britain
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London Calling...

Getting the Red Bull Air Race into the surround of London was not an easy task. It took well over a year of planning to get plans together for this spectacular event. The first problems  to overcome were aviation. Permission had to be sought to allow single engined civilian types to fly in London airspace which is generally not allowed. Secondly, London City Airport would have to remain closed during competition and display time as the site was right under the approach to the airport. On the water, the busy shipping lanes up and down the Thames would also have to remain closed during display and competition times. On the ground, RBAR is a huge logistic operation with viewing areas widely spread out and on opposite side of the Thames, all of which had to be linked for the commentary and big screens. It's also a huge media operation catering for all sorts of national and international media including live television broadcasts.

Further east down the Thames from the main site was the temporary runway area and hangerage. Like the main site, it was visually an impressive setup with a new small airfield setup on the northern side of London City Airport. It had it's own control tower and media facilities for the event as well as hosting VIPs.

The Red Bull Air Race is perhaps one of the most spectacular sports in the world. In 2007, the series has certainly upped the stakes introducing a knock out system. The series can trace it's routes back to 2001 when Red Bull thought about ways to marry motorsport with aviation. The result was the very first Air Race at the AirPower '03 airshow at Zeltweg in Austria. It was such a huge success Red Bull took the event to Hungary in the same year. The next year, the race was held at three different venues and started off in the UK for the first time as part of the Kemble Air Day.

At Kemble, the event was very small forming just an hour or so of a six hour flying display. The course it self consisted of just three sets of pylons and a wide range of types used by the six or so pilots.

The 2007 UK leg couldn't be more different First thing to notice is the scale of the event. Now as it's own stand alone event, the whole thing is much, much bigger. The event is on a par with an international motor racing circuit as far as facilities go with purpose built temporary hangerage, control centres and VIP enclosures. There are many more pilots too with thirteen pilots competing in the world series, though only twelve were at the London race. Infact, the whole event is just on a higher level with some really serious competition between the pilots. That's meant the aircraft have changed significantly. At Kemble 2004, three different types were on the podium. In third place was Steve Jones using his Su-26. That type is long gone and is simply too slow to be competitive. In second place was Peter Besenyei in his Extra 300. Though the Extra hasn't disappeared totally it's more usual form, it's certainly considered uncompetitive for the top pilots though a new version of the aircraft may well change things in the future as we'll see later. Winning the day at Kemble was one Kirby Chambliss in a two seat Edge 540. Since then, the single seater Edge 540 has gone on to dominate the series and now equips most of the field including title favourites Paul Bonhomme and Mike Mangold as well as previous champion Kirby Chambliss and teammate Peter Besenyei

One of the controversies of the London race was Nicolas Ivanoff and his new Extra EA300SR. This aircraft is the first ever purpose built for racing. Unlike normal Extras and the Edges, it features a slight dihedral a new shape wing (ie. the wings are angled up slightly) Though clearly still in the development stage, this aircraft could have a fundamental effect on the series as pilots would have to keep buying different aircraft to remain competitive. It is perhaps time Red Bull inforced more stringent rules on the design of aircraft in the world series to maintain the spectacle. Another type that is proving itself is the MX2 flown by British entrant Nigel Lamb. This aircraft is quite heavy which is a great disadvantage but in the hands of Nigel causes one or two upsets often knocking out superior machinery. Nigel hope to take delivery of a developed version of this aircraft in the not too distant future.

The courses too have change significantly. There are many more gates now marked by the special design pylons. Pylons marked with blue bands have to be taken with a horizontal wing attitude while red bands mean the aircraft should be presented on knife edge through the gate. Incorrect attitude results in 3 second penalties for the pilot as does being too high for a gate. Striking a pylon costs the pilot 10 seconds while a "course deviation" results in disqualification as does "dangerous flight." The style of gates too has changed. As well as the traditional gates with two pylons, there are slaloms and the infamous "Quadro" which is four pylons though which the aircraft pass in two directions perpendicular to each other.

London Winners

1st - Mike Mangold - USA - Team Cobra - Edge 540

2nd - Paul Bonhomme - GBR - Team Matador - Edge 540

3rd - Peter Besenyei - HUN - Team Red Bull - Edge 540

The new format of the competition means that pilots first qualify as they would for a motor race to decide the start positions for the next stage of the race. The next stage is elimination and that starts with the slowest pilots so the action gets faster and faster. Elimination means exactly that with only the eight fastest qualify for the quarter finals. Here the fastest pilot will duel against the slowest pilot and so on to eliminate a further four pilots sending the other four on to the semis. Again, time is important who takes on who is decided by the time set the in quarter finals. The two losing pilots in the semi finals then compete in the 3rd place fly off while the winners go on to the final.

The event itself is held over two days. Saturday sees the qualification rounds. Pilots have two attempts to set a qualifying time for the next day. London however proved a little different. The warm up days preceding the main event proved to be grey, overcast and very windy. It became so bad that a number of pilots felt they would be unable to compete should the conditions continue. As it was, the wind calmed down for the weekend changing the course by so much, the pilots were allowed some free practice first thing on Saturday morning. As well as the racing, there were some other activities as part of the opening ceremonies. Red Bull supplied their own Red Bull MBB Bo105 aerobatic helicopter display which is quite simply an outstanding display though was a little distant. The Army were also there in force with a solo display by the Lynx AH7 and a para drop by the Red Devils into the River Thames itself!

The racing itself is conducted in a very slick manner with very few gaps in the action. The Air Race is presented in a much more "in-your-face" style than that we are used to at airshows and to a certain extent more so than motor racing. The music and enthusiasm of the commentators helps to build a brilliant atmosphere of excitement for the crowds. The backdrop for the aircraft entering "track" was Canary Wharf and the financial district of Docklands which was truly stunning. From the north side much of the backdrop to the racing was dominated by the O2 arena or just "the dome" to most people which again is an amazing view. To those not familiar to seeing these aerobatic machines, the racing is truly spectacular with the aircraft ducking, diving and turning at very low level above the Thames. The latter stages of the competition just get more exciting and the success of Paul Bonhomme in particular certainly got the crowds going with collective cheers as he got through the semi finals and a collective "arrr" as Mike Mangold finally edged Paul out in the final to take the win.

The London stage of the Red Bull Air Race World Series was an outstanding event. The event itself was a very slick operation and the backdrop of the O2 and Canary Wharf was stunning. We hope that London can once again hold this amazing event next year and beyond.

Thanks to Ruth Szyszkowski, Nina Derby and all at Red Bull for making this report possible.

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