Defending champion Paul Bonhomme of Britain won the first Red Bull Air Race of the 2010 season in Abu Dhabi on Saturday with a hard-fought victory in scorching heat, finishing just ahead of compatriot Nigel Lamb (2nd) and Hungary’s Peter Besenyei (3rd) in an eventful battle over the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf. Austria’s Hannes Arch finished a disappointing 11th after posting the fastest Qualifying time on Friday.
Arch, who had won the Abu Dhabi race last year and was the favourite going in after winning the one Qualifying point on Friday, was disqualified in the Top 12 round for dangerous flying. Many other front-runners were also knocked out early on a day of upsets due to disqualifications or technical malfunctions. With temperatures rising above 40 degrees and the strong desert winds suddenly shifting direction just hours before the race, the 2010 season opener turned into one of the most dramatic races in the six-year history of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.
Michael Goulian took a strong fourth place but the American’s day nevertheless ended in disappointment as well when he was unable to fly in the final due to technical problems. Canada’s Pete McLeod, a rookie last year, got a career-best fifth place. Australia’s Matt Hall was flying well and was poised for a spot on the podium but was also forced to retire ahead of the Super 8 round with a technical problem that dropped him to eighth place.
“It’s a great start to the new year,” said Bonhomme, who took 12 points and picked up his 12th career victory. Bonhomme, like fellow Red Bull Air Race veterans Lamb and Besenyei, was a master of the difficult weather conditions and managed to stay calm despite some extraordinary challenges. Bonhomme’s winning time was 1:14.06. Lamb was 0.86 seconds behind and Besenyei was 7.12 behind.
“It’s fascinating what we’ve seen today”, said Bonhomme. “The wind changed direction and it sorts everyone out. The temperature was also a factor. To keep your concentration up in these conditions is quite a task. I don’t think it’s a coincidence (that only veterans were on the podium). Experience helps on days like today. You have to keep an eye on what happens and play the tactics just right.”
Lamb and Besenyei, who both struggled somewhat in fair weather training earlier in the week, rose to the occasion in the heat and treacherous winds. Visibility was also hampered by desert winds filled with sand.
“Today was a day of race tactics and strategy,” said Lamb. The Team Breitling pilot added that he hoped to make a habit of getting on the podium after taking an identical second place in Barcelona. “One would be deluded to think it’s going to be easy. There are at least 12 pilots this year who have been putting in times that are within a few seconds of each other. It’s going to be a very interesting season.”
Arch of Team Abu Dhabi was clearly upset with the disqualification, which stunned thousands of the local fans watching along the Corniche. “I don’t have a clue about what the stewards saw,” he said. “It was a normal racing situation.”
The first race of the 2010 season was also a learning experience for the two rookies. Martin Sonka of the Czech Republic, who celebrated his 32nd birthday with a strong performance in Qualifying on Friday, picked up 20 penalty points on Saturday and ended up 13th. Brazil’s Adilson Kindlemann had an even more eventful race, picking up 28 penalty points including 12 for hitting two Air Gates.
The next stop of the 8-race season takes place in Perth, Western Australia on the 17th – 18th April.