What sport takes place at speeds up to 370 km/hr, needs reactions from participants of a little as one-thousandth of a second, inflicts 12G on them and a change of direction at 420 degrees/ second?
When they said, ‘Gives You Wiiiiings’, they weren’t kidding.
A good guess would be Formula One motor racing, but in fact, these are statistics from the sadly now-defunct Red Bull Air Racing!
Air races are nothing new—the first recorded race was in May 1909 near Paris. The distance being ten 1.2km laps, with just two entrants and M. Leon Delagrange being declared the winner. The formats have varied considerably, from the ultra-long-distance MacRobertson race from England to Australia in 1934, to the wonderfully named Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider. (commonly known as the ‘Schneider Trophy’) The race was a time-trial for seaplanes and flying boats and was held 12 times between 1913 and 1931 over a triangular course of 350km. The race was significant since it was the stimulus for aircraft design, and famously the outright winner—the British company Supermarine—used the technology in the design of the Spitfire.
In the modern era, the most famous air races are those held annually from 1966 in Reno, USA. The National Champion Air Races include six formats (even including jets!) racing around pylons in the Nevada desert.
In 2002 the Hungarian Peter Besenyei teamed up with the Red Bull company to develop a new, different and modern air race. The format was to be the time-trial—timed sequential racing—through or around slalom sets of pylons over a short course and adhering to a simple philosophy; ‘Speed. Time. Easy to understand’.
The Red Bull Air Races were inaugurated in 2003 with events in Austria (Red Bull GmbH being an Austrian company) and in Hungary. In 2004 races took place in England, Hungary and Reno and expanded in 2005 to seven races with ten pilots. In the 2009 ‘Red Bull Air Race World Series’ 15 pilots from 12 countries took part in six races.
In its 2008 iteration, a given race event consisted of two training days; a qualifying day: the best time on the two mandatory sessions of qualifying counts. The slowest pilot going first, 14 pilots fly in heats and the top seven and fastest loser go through to a round of eight. The fastest four compete in the final four and fastest time wins. First place earns 25 points towards the championship, 22 for second down to 1 point for 13th place. Pilots must fly around or through various combinations of gates and 1, 2 or 3-second penalties were levied for violations of the rules.
In the early stages of the competition, pilots flew whatever aerobatic aircraft they had, but during later races settled on the Zivko Edge 540, MXS-R and the Corvus Racer 540 all with Lycoming engines. The wingspan was less than 25 ft (7.6m) and a maximum speed of roughly 420 km/hr.
Races have been staged near centres of large populations and usually in scenic locations; these have included Rio de Janeiro, the River Danube in Budapest, Acapulco in Mexico, Istanbul and the River Thames in London.
In the 2010 series, the Brazilian pilot Adilson Kindlemann crashed into the Swan River in Perth, Australia, but suffered no serious injuries. As a consequence, the 2011, ’12 and ’13 series were cancelled, but the races returned in 2014.
Red Bull announced that it would cease the air races at the end of the 2019 series as a result of a lack of support from venues and patrons. A sad day, but various forms of air racing and timed trials continue and perhaps one day, we’ll see the Red Bull format re-appear!