x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Red Bull rivalry resumes in Abu Dhabi skies

We're not winging it, say daredevil pilots. They say it's a real sport, they're real athletes who train hard, compete hard and they hate to lose.

Top, a Red Bull pilot practises on Wednesday.
Top, a Red Bull pilot practises on Wednesday.

ABU DHABI // When competitors take to the air for the qualifying round of the Red Bull Air Race this afternoon, history may well end up repeating itself. A year ago, Paul Bonhomme, the English pilot, and the relative rookie, Hannes Arch, from Austria, fought a close battle over two days in Abu Dhabi, with Bonhomme eventually coming out on top. Arch, 41, may have finished second behind Bonhomme after a close competition in the skies over the Corniche, but he finished the season as champion in only his second year of racing. The rivalry is set to be renewed again this weekend, as the two weave through inflatable air gates erected in the sea. The Abu Dhabi race propelled 44-year-old Bonhomme to a flying start in 2008 and he went on to win at three of the seven other venues around the world, yet still came up fractionally and frustratingly short in a title battle with Arch. Arch, now racing for the new Team Abu Dhabi, was rewarded for his greater consistency with a first world championship in only his second season as a Red Bull racer and he has taught his principal rival a salutary lesson for the dog fights that lie ahead. "I want the world title this year and I know that to achieve that objective I cannot afford to make the mistakes I made last season," said Bonhomme, referring to a rare collision with one of the inflatable gates during his home race in London and another unsatisfactory performance in the Portuguese leg over Oporto. "You need to keep finishing in the top three in this event to get a decent wedge of points from every race if you are going to end up as the champion." During the two-day event, 15 pilots compete over six races. The first two races are qualifying rounds in which the top ten performers go on to the next round. The bottom five pilots then duke it out in a wildcard race, with the top two going on to compete with the winners from the qualifying rounds. The first competition race consists of 12 pilots. During the next race, only the fastest eight fly and in the third and final competition round, it will be down to the final four. It is in this last race that the top four pilots compete for the win. Bonhomme, who comes from a Cambridgeshire family steeped in aviation history, is still irked that his record was not good enough last time round to deny Arch, who stood on top of the winners' rostrum on only two occasions but was on the podium at all but one of the eight venues. "Maybe there should be more of a weighting between first place and the rest to give the winner more reward because that's what we are all trying to do - win the race," he said. "We have a two-point gap between first and second this year which is moving in the right direction." The organisers of the popular event which is expected to attract an aggregate of 350,000 spectators over the two days are also awarding for the first time a bonus point for the winner of the qualifying heat which will take place this afternoon when the fastest 10 from the 15 competitors will go through to the race itself tomorrow. The five back markers from today will go into a 'wild card' play-off after which two more pilots will earn places in the race for championship points, the eventual winner earning 12 points, the runner up 10 and rest being rewarded on a sliding scale down to the 11th- placed finisher who will get a single point. All of which endorses the emphatic view of those taking part that they are competing in a sporting event and not a circus act. "Tell anybody who thinks we are not a sport to come and travel with me for a lap," said Bonhomme who has performed in countless air shows and fully appreciates the difference between those engagements and racing at breakneck speed. "Those supporters would l see how hard I have to work for my success if they were sat alongside me. We are all dedicated athletes who train tremendously hard in the hope of getting the edge over each other. "Sure enough, when we started in 2003 we all just turned up with whatever we had in our hangars and just had fun. But since then it has become unbelievably competitive. It has now got very technical with precise calculations being made in areas of aerodynamics and weight ratios." Abu Dhabi's new adopted son, the world champion Arch, agreed as he set out his claims to give his new sponsors a welcome 'home' victory in the fifth staging of the race here. "I think we proved last year that this is a sport," said Arch, who accumulated 61 points to Bonhomme's 54 over the eight races. "If you look at the times they were really close together. Tenths of a second separated pilots at speeds of 370kph. I am running every day, I have a mental trainer, I am an athlete. "If you race out there in 40° heat and you have to focus for one and a half minutes knowing that your life is in danger if you falter then it's genuine sport. And I am proud to be world champion in my sport." Abu Dhabi is the first stop in the world championship tour. After the winner is declared in the capital, the crews will pack up and take the show to the next city. The championship consists of six stops in six cities.

wjohnson@thenational.ae