After a four-year break, the Red Bull Air Race returns next Friday. Over the next few months, 12 of the world’s most talented aerobatic pilots will fly lithe, streamlined aircraft in a competition that has a simple aim: to find out who can fly the fastest.
This year the Air Race will visit seven locations across three continents (starting this weekend at Abu Dhabi in the UAE).
The new series includes some format changes. There are now standard engines and propellers for competing aircraft, changes to the lightweight pylon material to make them easier to burst apart if they are clipped by aircraft wings and raising the height of the pylons that the pilots pass through from 20 to 25 metres. The rules have also been tightened to prevent any pilots from exceeding the set limits.
Another new feature is the Challengers Cup, what Red Bull describes as a “stepping-stone competition” for new pilots to gain experience racing in the tracks on certain Red Bull Air Race stops. They will also participate in several training camps during the season.
What Red Bull will hope won’t change, though, is the pure spectacle of watching pilots flying low to the ground in a picturesque location against the clock. In the UK, you’ll be able to watch the races (both live and highlights) on Sky Sports 4. Details here.
And another constant are the demands on the pilots. This mix of flying and racing requires accurate piloting of the highest order.
Nigel Lamb is one of the 12 pilots in the revitalised Red Bull Air Race. A veteran of the series, he’ll be flying a Breitling-branded MXS. Nigel’s very eloquent on the specific physical-mental challenges involved in the Air Race. I interviewed him in 2010 about the challenges involved: Interview – Red Bull Air Racer Nigel Lamb
He told me that the crux of the Air Race is the ability to fly precisely at the current point in time and – at the same time as that – be able to think ahead.
“It sounds crazy that you can be pulling g…yet thinking of something else, but you really do need the capacity to do that. You need the perfect balance, being in tune with the present task yet always sufficiently ahead of the machine to see the big picture. If you’re not thinking ahead fairly well you’re definitely going to come unstuck, but how do you do that and fly incredibly accurately?
“It’s hugely intense…to go through a whole week of competition you need to have good mental preparation; the whole body-mind thing becomes very important.”
From Abu Dhabi this week to Ascot racecourse (host of the UK round), from the USA, Malaysia and China to the picturesque Croatian town of Rovinj, Nigel and the other pilots will have to rise to this challenge.
Images courtesy Victoria Griffiths, Breitling Race Team