Following World War II, the surviving fighter pilot-types – the stereotypically brave, chiselled jawed soldiers every man or boy secretly dreamed of being – were left kicking their heels; grateful that the war was over, but missing the adrenalin-fuelled buzz of combat. Motor racing offered a release – an escape from the mundane world still reeling in shock that they were thrust back in to.
The racing cars were powerful, unwieldy, deadly and required a strong, brave hand to tame them. They offered once again the chance to cheat death and get a fix of adrenalin. But still, the thrill of being in the air, amongst the clouds and up with the Gods, was missing. For the few that tried to fill the void, post-war motor racing simply didn’t cut the mustard. Now though, there is a more appealing option for the few and far between who still possess the WWII fighter-pilot mentality.
It’s quicker, more dangerous and arguably more visually spectacular than any other form of motor racing. The speeds top 265mph, a frontier further than the comparatively pedestrian Formula One; g-forces would rip the head from mere-mortals’ shoulders and the consequences of failures or mistakes would be nothing shy of catastrophic. The dare-devil participants possess nerves of steel, feline-like reactions and metaphorical cojones of eye-watering size. Ignoring the obvious dangers, they simply let rip, race and fly…
The Air Race World Championship is the brainchild of Red Bull’s sporting division, first run in 2003 in an attempt to take racing to a new level of extremes, and its popularity is quite rightly spreading.
At venues all around the globe, pioneering pilots thrill crowds of thousands in the pursuit of victory, staking their claim to be the fastest man in the fastest sport. The premise is simple enough: weave your purpose built, agile, meticulously crafted plane around the course in the quickest time possible, passing through inflated pylons – the ‘Air Gates’ that make up the course – at seemingly impossible angles and speeds. The quickest to complete the course, once any penalties are added for clipping and ripping through the Air Gates or passing too high through them, is the winner.
Of those winners, it was the moustachioed Hungarian Peter Besenyei, a driving force behind the creation of the sport, who claimed the inaugural title in 2003. There may have been just the two events that year as the sport found its feet but Besenyei, the ‘Godfather’ of modern Air Racing, won them both. Now 58, Besenyei is still competing but hasn’t won since 2007 as a new breed of super talented racer pilots took to the skies.
Following Besenyei’s ’03 success, the American’s reigned supreme as Kirby Chambliss and Mike Mangold took it in turns to claim the championship over a four year stretch. Then, in 2008 the patriotic Austrian backers were ecstatic to see the title go the way of their own Hannes Arch.
Time came to return the Spitfire-spirit to the skies – just what the sport needed as it gathered momentum. Enter one Paul Bonhomme; brave, skilled, dominant and fazed by little. The Brit claimed back-to-back titles in 2009 and ’10 having won more races than anyone in the sport’s brief history. Then it all stopped – for three years, as Red Bull evaluated its safety and organisational measures.
With each passing year it seemed that the Red Bull Air Race World Championship had had its day, destined not to return, consigning its heroes once again to a mundane world void of the thrill of aerial combat. But for 2014, Air Racing returned, bigger, faster and more thrilling than ever.
Now the sport reaches new heights, its formula perfected by the might of Red Bull in its three year hiatus. Taking in new venues and attracting even more of the chiselled jawed soldier types, it’s old-school mentality meets ultra-modern motor sport technology. As an alternative form of motor racing, they don’t come much more spectacular.