By Martin Kocandrle, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Last week the beaches of Flamengo and Botafogo received a dramatic makeover in preparation for the Red Bull Air Race. Rio played host for only the third time, and the race formed part of an eight-stop world tour which pits the world’s top pilots against each other.
Fourteen planes and pilots raced through inflatable pylons known as “air gates” placed strategically along the water. The pilots must navigate them in a predetermined order at a defined altitude either flying level or vertically “knifing” through at speeds of over 400 kilometers per hour.
The Rio racetrack was about 5.6 kilometers long with an average track time of 80 seconds and as pilot Matthias Dolderer described, “Every track is technical its just that Rio is technical in a different way, because of its speed, a slight mistake can be costly.” Pilots reach up to 370 km/h at the start and can experience G’s of 10.7.
Last Thursday the pilots got their first taste of the track in one of four training sessions over two days. Pilot Paul Bonhomme put in some of the quickest times but fellow Brit Nigel Lamb was close behind him.
Rivalries began to heat up on Friday when Hannes Arch took up the challenge from Bonhomme and managed to score an aggressive 1:19:20, 400ths of a second ahead of Bonhomme, though the latter tacked up Arch’s result to pre-race posturing before the final day.
“It’s fascinating as I can see when Hannes is playing psychological games from about 5 miles away,” he said. “It’s only Friday afternoon and we’ve got a long way to go yet so we’ve just been drinking tea and having a lovely time.”
Qualifying rounds began on Saturday with a light northerly breeze and sunny blue skies to greet the contestants, but the forecast predicted rain for Sunday, and many pilots flew as if it were the only day of racing. The leaderboard was shaken up as Arch maintained his lead and Lamb bumped Bonhomme down to third place, while the Australian Matt Hall moved up to fourth and American Kirby Chambliss was bumped down to fifth.
After taking a number of runs at the course the pilots began to reflect on their impressions of the track, and strategies for coping with challenges. Canadian Pete McLeod provided some insight into his strategy for beating competitors that are running better equipment: “Because the track allows pilots to hit high speeds, some of these guys have fast times but make mistakes and receive penalties, my strategy is to fly smooth, not get penalties and stay clear of any mistakes.“
Others such as Bonhomme described crucial parts of the course like the loop from gates five to six and the sharp right through gate seven where, according to Bonhomme, if you get it right “You are laughing.” He continued to explain that, “the course is lovely; technical but fast flowing, a single mistake can make or break your race.”
On Sunday morning some 250,000 spectators gathered on Flamengo beach to see the final day’s race only to be disappointed by the inclement weather and high winds. After just a handful of runs the Red Bull Air Race Committee deemed it unsafe to fly and the results of Saturday’s qualifyiers were proclaimed the official results of the 2010 Rio race.
In celebrating, winner Arch said, “I’m obviously thrilled to get the win today but on the other hand I would really have liked to have given the 250,000 spectators here today a great race.”
The results now leave Lamb and Arch trailing behind Bonhomme by three and four points respectively on the leader-board, as the teams move on for the next round in Canada on June 5th.