A change of plans as the three-race European leg of the Red Bull Air Race World tour shrinks to a single shoot-out above Eastern Germany. We talk to the three title contenders, Paul Bonhomme, Hannes Arch and Nigel Lamb...
In quick succession the Red Bull Air Race World Championship races in Budapest and Portugal have been pulled from the calendar. Combined with the news at the start of the year that a proposed race in Marseilles had also been cancelled, it means the European leg boils down to one round at Germany’s EuroSpeedway racetrack, near Lausitz, early next month.
The decision, which cites operational and administrative difficulties, means reigning world champion Paul Bonhomme goes to the final race of the year five points clear of the field (on 53 points), and on course to be the first man to win back-to-back world titles. But with a potential 13 points up for grabs in Lausitz, both Hannes Arch (48 points) and Nigel Lamb (47pts) have a chance of overhauling the Englishman.
A podium finish will do for Bonhomme, and with his run of successive podiums stretching back to 2008, neither of the challengers are overly optimistic about their chances. “Obviously this turn of events is very disappointing, because it gives us fewer opportunities to catch Paul,” says Team Breitling’s Nigel Lamb. “Paul’s either got to fly very badly or have his plane not start.”
'I’m still positive, and I will try to win the race' – Hannes Arch
Arch echoes Lamb’s comments, adding that even a triumph wouldn’t necessarily give him the sense of satisfaction he felt with his 2008 title. “For me to win the title this year, it needs somebody else to make a mistake, and that isn’t the way I want to do it – I want to win because I’ve flown better than the others, not because they’ve had a bad day.”
Arch is, however, the favourite for the race win. In his race-bespoke Edge V3 aircraft, the Austrian has been the fastest man this year; winning in Australia and Canada, and being awarded a further win at the weather-striken Brazil round. He lost out to Bonhomme in New York, where he hit a pylon in the final, and Abu Dhabi when he was disqualified for flying outside the perimeter of the race track, which Arch still regards as contentious and which now has a huge bearing on the end result of a truncated season.
“I’m still positive, and I will try to win the race. I think I’ve done a good job this year. After the dubious disqualification in Abu Dhabi I won the next three races. I should have won a fourth but I made a mistake, and now I’ll try to win the final round – I cannot do any more than that.”
Bonhomme’s task may have got a little easier, but the reigning world champion isn’t exactly turning cartwheels of joy either. “I’ve got mixed feelings. Obviously I’d rather be going into the final round – wherever that would be – five points ahead rather than five points behind but as a consideration that’s small-fry: forefront in my mind is the disappointment that we’ve not got a robust calendar for this year, and that we’ve lost two of the best races in Budapest and Portugal.”
Arch agrees that the main thing now is to get the series back into some sort of order for 2011. “The most important thing for the competitors, for the organisation, the sponsors and everybody else is to have a confirmed calendar for 2011 – and I mean absolutely nailed down. Not in November. Now.
“As an athlete what has happened is annoying, but as the head of a team it’s more than that. We have to plan ahead: we buy engines and invest in the latest technologies, and it’s hard to make those sorts of commitments when the future is uncertain.
“It’s OK to have a six-race season, we can plan for that, but to be told there will be 10 races, and pass that information to my sponsors and the media, before learning there will only be six – that’s difficult to sell.”
Bonhomme adds: “I really worry about the reaction of the sponsors and TV and media, who might look at this and ask ‘is this a real sport?’ That’s my main concern.”
'It’s my 50th air race and I’m going to have a bloody good time' – Paul Bonhomme
All three contenders, however, agree that they’re going to give it a really good go in Germany. For Lamb and Arch the equation is simple – they have to win the race and hope Bonhomme trips up somewhere along the way.
“I’ll certainly be going all-out in Germany for a victory and a good podium position in the championship,” says Lamb. “I’ll do my usual thing,” adds Arch, “like every other race I’ll do my best and try to win the race. In the air this one won’t be any different.”
For Bonhomme the challenge is slightly different, potentially harder. “It would be very easy to relax and then discover I’ve taken my eye off the ball – the real concern for me is that if I have a bad race, I won’t have a chance to redeem myself later.”
It’s a set of circumstances he greets with his usual bemusement: “Obviously Nigel and Hannes have to go flat out – and if they hit a pylon everyone will say ‘good on them for really having a go’. If I hit a pylon, everyone will say ‘what an idiot – he’s thrown it away!’
“But I’m not going to let that bother me. It’s my 50th air race and I’m going to have a bloody good time. I’m going to enjoy the flying and if it goes well we’ll celebrate – and if it doesn’t go well, we’ll celebrate anyway.”