“You are cleared into the Track, SMOKE ON!!” – this is the tower command to the pilots before they enter the airspace of downtown Budapest and begin their Red Bull Air Race lap by flying under the Chain Bridge – which was actually the first stone bridge above the Danube river in the capital of Hungary, handed over to the horse carriages and pedestrians in 1849. In average the Air Race participants pass under the bridge with a speed of about 380-390 km/h, and this weekend they were usually closer to the river than the bridge, by having about 6 meters to the bridge and about 2,5 meters to the river. One of the pilots that flew the lowest was Péter Besenyei, who was only 1,9 meters above the water surface (which is actually less than my own height…).
The 20th of August is a national holiday in Hungary, to commemorate the establishment of the Christian State in the year 1000. But for a few years now, it has also been the “traditional” date of the Hungarian round of the Red Bull Air Race World Series, which in return can be attended by a large number of Hungarians as they are having a holiday. Hungarians tend to look at this race as one of their own events, especially as Péter Besenyei – the multiple time world champion of stunt flying – is one of the “fathers” of the Air Race. He came up with the idea of having to fly through gates around a lap, to bring stunt flying physically closer to the spectators. His idea was very much welcomed at Red Bull who became the title sponsor and organizer of such a race. It began as a single event 6 years ago, and has grown to a world series by 2007, with having 10 races this year from the US to Abu Dhabi, from London to Istanbul and “of course” in Budapest (for the fourth time). This year however has brought a new race order, first there is a pre-qualification round for all 13 planes, and based on their times, the top 12 take part in the qualification, from where the top 8 pilots advance to the semi-finals. Following the pre-qualification, Nicolas Ivanoff hurt his neck so today we saw only 11 of them competing for the top 8 places. Those 8 then compete in pairs (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5) where the winner advances to the next round. So the top 4 will fly on the “circuit” 4 times during the day (qualification, semi-finals, knock out for the final and third place/final). The Budapest circuit is one of the most spectacular ones in the season as it is located in the real heart of a metropolitan city, between the Chain and the Margaret Bridges, where planes fly in front of the Castle hill, the Academy of Science, the Hungarian Parliament and of course the famous Chain Bridge. It is for the Air Race series, what Monte-Carlo is for Formula-1! The gates are placed on swimming platforms in the river drawing the path to fly.
The event itself is really something to see. This is the kind of thing that I would call “breathtaking”, especially when you see these planes fly with such high speed among such beautiful buildings, turning around, passing some of the gates sideways, crossing under the bridge twice in every lap and doing a few stunt movements at the end of each lap to “wave goodbye” to the crowd. Talking about the crowd: according to the organizers, this year there were around one million people watching the race on location!! Even if the reality was only half of that estimated number, it is still a huge crowd cheering for these guys!
I will not comment on the pre-qualification, qualification and the semi-final rounds, except that Mike Mangold really scared me once, when just after entering the circuit, he turned between gates 1 and 2, with his right wing almost touching the water. I could really see for a second that he hits it and crashes his white plane… But he didn’t, he was about 40-50 cms from the water, but it was amazing to see it right in front me, as I was standing in between those two gates on the Buda side of the river.
The top four pilots in Budapest in 2007 were Péter Besenyei (HUN), Mike Mangold (USA), Paul Bonhomme (GBR) and Kirby Chambliss (USA). Unfortunately Péter collected the only one, 3 second penalty of the day for flying too high in one of the gates when competing with Mangold, so he did not get in the final. On the other path Kirby was quicker than Bonhomme, so the finals were held between the two US pilots. For the third place Péter lost 0.21 seconds against Paul, so the winner of the first two races this year (Abu Dhabi and Rio de Janeiro) did not get on the podium on his home race. Péter has later told the press, that his engine had some problems, as the RPM could not go to the maximum, it stopped at about 100 rates lower for his last two flights today, which makes a difference in speed. On the other hand, Mr. Bonhomme, has been on the podium for 13 consecutive Air Races, which is a record on its own, and has lost his lead in the championship this weekend. In the final, Mike Mangold has won over Chambliss, with a very impressive lap, that timed at 1:12.85. This was the third victory for Mike this year so far: Istanbul, London and Budapest are his trophies from 2007.
The next round will be held in Porto, Portugal in only 11 days.