Courtesy of Red Bull Media Service
As the second half of the Red Bull Air Race season took off with a July debut in Kazan, Russia, 2014 World Champion Nigel Lamb visited his former colleagues on the Breitling Racing Team. Ahead of the aerial action, the retired British legend offered his take on the battle for this year’s title.
“Nobody has had an easy journey so far, for sure. Even the guys at the top of the leaderboard have had their ‘disaster’ races,” said Lamb, who hung up his racing gloves at the end of the 2016 season. “There are a lot of people who could still win this championship; it’s wide open, which is great. It will all come down to who can be the most consistent and, if not get into the Final 4, get as close to it as possible and collect a healthy chunk of points every race.”
Lamb knows about consistency: when he took the title in 2014, he won the third race of the season and then finished second in each of the remaining five races, clinching the crown in an epic battle at the season finale in Spielberg, Austria. At Kazan, his former rivals were keen to catch up with their old foe, and Lamb commanded authority as he walked through the race airport.
“Nobody has surprised me so far, because they’re all strong pilots,” he commented. “Yoshi [Japan’s Yoshihide Muroya] has had fantastic results in three races, but his first race wasn’t so good and he is sometimes on the fringes of an over-G. Martin [Šonka, Czech Republic] and Pete [McLeod, Canada] have both shown great consistency, but they’ve also picked up a bad race each. Kirby [Chambliss, USA] won in Budapest but has also been inconsistent.”
As Lamb reviewed the standings, like most people he was surprised to see the current World Champion, Germany’s Matthias Dolderer, sitting in sixth place (a position where the German would remain after the Kazan race). Dolderer won his 2016 title with a formula of consistency that surpassed even Lamb’s, finishing first or second in all but one of seven completed races, but yet this season… “We don’t know what’s going on with Matthias. He’s not really been able to find the place he was in last year,” Lamb noted. “He’ll be hurting badly, but he’s still in the mix.”
The six pilots who have graduated from the Challenger Class have also impressed Lamb, who competed in more than 60 races. “Petr Kopfstein [CZE] is doing incredibly well – but it’s not really a surprise for me. The guy has talent, and he was showing good times last year. Juan [Velarde, ESP] had that great result [second place in Abu Dhabi], but then had some bad races. I’m pretty sure Mikaël [Brageot, FRA] could get to the podium at least once this year; he just needs things to fall into place,” explained Lamb, who formerly mentored Brageot in the Master Mentoring Program of the Red Bull Air Race.
Lamb went on, “Peter [Podlunšek, SLO] had a great result as well [second place, San Diego], and Cristian’s [Bolton, CHI] first race was very promising, and you know it’s the little things that make a big difference. And François [Le Vot, FRA] will perform once he’s settled in his new plane. So you see, all 14 pilots could find themselves on the podium.”
Watching from the sidelines, Lamb could tell that not only the six newer pilots are making strides. The more established contenders are also improving all the time, making for an intensely competitive field. “Michael Goulian [USA] – my goodness – he is right there, it’s so close for him. Nicolas [Ivanoff, FRA] is always right up there as well, but you never know which Nicolas is going to turn up. And Matt [Hall, AUS] is on the brink of something special. I was predicting quite a long time ago that once he settles in his new raceplane he’ll be back. He knows exactly how to get to the podium, and I see good things coming for Matt,” Lamb declared.
When the race played out in Kazan, Chambliss captured the win, while McLeod and Goulian were second and third. Now, with just a trio of races to go, the season rushes on to Porto, Portugal, where four pilots will be jostling to break clear of the tiny two-point spread they share at the top of the leaderboard: Chambliss’ 40 points give him a slim advantage, Muroya and Šonka each have 39, and McLeod is in fourth with 38.
And the championship remains wide open, with 45 points up for grabs. Pilots like Dolderer are still well within striking distance – plus any one of the 14 contenders is capable of a race win that could upset the whole apple cart. Ultimately, as in any motorsport, it may take more than sheer talent to prevail.
“You need the roll of the dice to fall well,” Lamb pointed out. “Everyone needs their fair share of luck. Yoshi made some really bold decisions this year that paid off – but he was lucky. You need everything if you’re going to win. You need to be smooth, aggressive and at least a bit lucky.”
Tickets for the 2017 Red Bull Air Race World Championship, including the return to Porto, Portugal on 2-3 September, are on sale now. www.redbullairrace.com