ABU DHABI // The first accolade of the new Red Bull Air Race season went to the adopted local favourite Hannes Arch yesterday, although the "Flying Falcon" as the Austrian has become known, received a timely helping hand from officialdom. Arch's splendid time of 1min 12.78secs put him in pole position for today's sixth staging of this spectacular event in the capital and also earned the 2008 world champion a one-point bonus for the fastest qualifying performance.
However, Paul Bonhomme, the reigning world champion, would have felt aggrieved as he surveyed slow motion replays of the first of his two runs through the tricky slalom course on the Corniche as he incurred a harsh two-second penalty for failing to pass through one of the 15 gates horizontally. "I don't know what happened there," said a perplexed Bonhomme, who took last year's world title by a seven-point margin from Arch.
"It [the manoeuvre] looked pretty good to me, but I suppose I would say that wouldn't I?" The judges' ruling meant that a time of 1min 12.45secs became 1min 14.45secs and relegated Bonhomme from first place to third after his English compatriot, Nigel Lamb, improved his performance by more than a second in the final session of qualifying to go into today's race as Arch's closest challenger. Occupying fourth place behind Bonhomme was the Frenchman Nicolas Ivanoff, while Kirby Chambliss, the former world champion from the United States, was fifth fastest, a fraction of a second ahead of his compatriot Michael Goulian.
The penalising of Bonhomme was the most significant of several interventions by the race stewards who disqualified two pilots - Adilson Kindlemann, the Brazilian rookie, and Germany's Matthias Dolderer - during the first qualifying session and a third, Canada's Pete McLeod, for what was termed "dangerous flying". His offence on an afternoon of death-defying feats was going too low and getting uncomfortably close to those watching the spectacular aerobatics display on the public beach.
Arch, entering the second year of an agreement to race in Team Abu Dhabi colours in his extensively modified Edge 540 flying machine, was faultless in his two runs and will take some stopping as he seeks to repeat his success here a year ago when he followed up his victory in the qualifying by winning the race itself. "I really enjoy racing here," said Arch who was second in Abu Dhabi in 2008 before leading home the talented line-up of dare-devil pilots 12 months ago.
The top 10 of the 15 competitors earn automatic qualification into the first of this season's eight Red Bull races this afternoon. Two more places are on offer from a wildcard play-off to the five men who failed to qualify yesterday. They include The National-sponsored entry, Alejandro Maclean, of Spain, who did not even make the starting gate yesterday due to a weight technicality. He and his MXR plane were 0.5kg under the minimum weight limit of 540kg.
"We were all stunned by that," said Maclean, "because when we tested the weight last night it was OK. Maybe the change in temperature made a difference. It puts me under a lot of pressure in the wildcard race because all the other guys have had a good look at the course and know where all the problems are." After the wildcard race, the 12 contenders will be reduced to a "Super Eight" when the four slowest are eliminated after the first of this afternoon's runs. Another four will then drop out after the second phase, leaving the top four to fight it out for the maximum of 12 points.