Horsepower (Not Horses) Takes Center Stage at Famed Ascot Racecourse
For the third consecutive year, the historical track located in the Berkshire countryside best known for hosting the Royal Ascot horse race held a leg of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. With the final two rounds of this year’s tour being held stateside in October, NYCAviation was on hand for the Ascot race to get a firsthand view of this year’s championship.
In contrast with the commonly held belief of constant overcast and rain, three beautiful, sunny, and warm English Summer days greeted the pilots, crews, and spectators for the Ascot race. While the race format has changed since the 2010 tour stop in New York, the excitement and close competition has remained the same, bringing fans to the edge of their seats as the pilots banked and powered their way through the course. The blue skies, beautiful light, and outstanding sightlines were an aviation photographer’s dream, providing plenty of opportunities for shots that differ from more traditional airshow photos.
Ascot is perhaps the most unique track on the series, where the pilots must dodge trees in addition to navigating through the 25 meter high pylons that define the course for an added challenge. American Michael Goulian theorized that unpredictable wind flowing over and around the trees was causing headaches for pilots, as certain breezes would cause pilots to lose time despite flying the fast lines around the track. This echoed the sentiments of many other race pilots including the retiring hometown hero Nigel Lamb, who just couldn’t figure out where he lost time following his loss in the Round of 8. The track is an out and back format, with pilots repeating the course in reverse order after reaching gate 6. In addition to the treelines around the track, Ascot is also one of the few tracks where the pilots fly directly into the first gate immediately following takeoff.
Six of the eight pilots from the Challenger Cup feeder series fly in spec Extra 330LX aircraft at each race site, learning the ropes of the air race with hopes to move up to the Master Class in a few years’ time. Former Challenger Cup competitors Juan Velarde, Francois Le Vot, Petr Kopfstein, and Peter Podlunsek have already punched their tickets to the Master Class, and were flying with the main series this weekend. Following a strong performance in Friday’s practice sessions, former Red Arrow leader and current Challenger Class pilot Ben Murphy carried momentum into Saturday’s qualifying and took the top spot on the time sheets. The storybook hometown win was not to be however, as he clipped a pylon on Gate 6 in the final, earning a 3 second penalty. This handed the Challenger Class win to American Kevin Coleman, who extended his lead in the Challenger Cup standings to 2 points over Germany’s Florian Berger with his first Red Bull Air Race win.
Master Class points leader Matthias Dolderer closed out Saturday’s qualifying as he did the practice sessions, with his Edge 540 V3 at the top of the time sheets. Americans Michael Goulian and Kirby Chambliss finished qualifying in 10th and 12th, with eventual winner Matt Hall in 8th over two seconds behind Dolderer. Czech pilot Martin Sonka looked strong in qualifying in his Red Bull sponsored Edge, finishing second, with Japan’s Yoshi Muroya, Spain’s Juan Velarde, and Canada’s Pete McLeod rounding out the top 5.
In the Round of 14, the pilots squared off in seven head to head matchups to compete for spots in the Round of 8. Immediately following the Round of 14 flights, it seemed as though both of America’s pilots had been knocked out, however Mike Goulian received a second chance when his opponent Pete McLeod’s plane failed the technical inspection, having exceeded the RPM limit during the takeoff run and acceleration to the first gate. McLeod and rookie Petr Kopfstein of the Czech Republic, pilot of the beautifully hand painted Spielberg Edge 540, both had similar engine overspeed infractions, disqualifying their results and awarding spots in the Round of 8 to Hannes Arch taking Kopfstein’s spot as the fastest loser and Goulian due to his head to head loss to McLeod.
An hour after the conclusion of the Round of 14, the Round of 8 began with Matt Hall defeating France’s Nicolas Ivanoff, earning his spot in the Final 4. Goulian defeated Muroya in the second head to head matchup following a pylon hit from Muroya on a run that would have been the fastest of the weekend without the penalty. Hannes Arch made the most of his second chance as well, and defeated Nigel Lamb by just over two tenths of a second in what would be Lamb’s final Red Bull Air Race flight in the UK prior to his retirement. Thousands of British race fans applauded Lamb as he touched down on the temporary grass runway in front of the grandstands. The two fastest pilots of the weekend, Dolderer and Sonka faced off for the final spot in the Final 4, where Dolderer set a blistering new track record at 1:03.266 seconds, over a second and a quarter faster than his opponent.
The Final 4 round dispenses with the head to head format, with all pilots competing for the fastest time. Matt Hall lead off with a 1:03.426, the second fastest lap of the weekend across all sessions. Goulian was up next, and put in a respectable time comparable to his earlier rounds, but a closer look at the data showed that he exceeded the maximum G-force limit in the final vertical turning maneuver prior to heading to the finishing gate, disqualifying his time from this round. Hannes Arch was up next, but a wide turn out of the second gate put him in a position where making a legal pass through gate three proved impossible. The course deviation resulted in a DQ for Arch, who was placed above Goulian when they went to the tiebreaker (Round of 8 times). One of the lighter moments from the post race press conference saw Nigel Lamb reminding Arch “You see here Hannes, Gate 3 comes after Gate 2”! Matthias Dolderer took to the skies last to challenge Hall’s time, but a wide line after gate two provided Hall with a time advantage that proved impossible to overcome.
The win provided Hall with a much needed boost in the points to keep his title hopes alive with three races to go. Dolderer increased his lead over Arch in second place, while Kirby Chambliss’ early exit saw him fall down the season points rankings. The next race takes place at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz, Germany in early September, followed by the two American legs in Indianapolis and Las Vegas to close out the season.
The authors would like to thank the Red Bull Air Race public affairs team, as well as all the race teams for the hospitality and access that made this article possible.