Courtesy of Red Bull Air Race Media Service
Japan has a new motorsport world champion: On Sunday, 15 October 2017, Yoshihide “Yoshi” Muroya became the first pilot from Japan – and all of Asia – to claim a season title in the Red Bull Air Race, with a brilliant win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While the result wasn’t a surprise to his legions of devoted fans, after a rollercoaster season it was joyous relief.
At 3:00am Indianapolis time on Sunday, the name “Martin Šonka” was trending on social media in Japan. Why? Šonka was to be Muroya’s first opponent in the championship finale, making the Czech pilot a hot topic. By the time the action got started in the afternoon, many fans 13 hours ahead in Japan were skipping sleep entirely to tune in. Their vigil was well worth it, as Muroya prevailed in a rollercoaster race. The ups and downs were emblematic of his entire season.
The start of a rivalry
Muroya joined the Bull Bull Air Race as part of the standout “Class of 2009.” He got his first podium in his third season, 2014, and two more in 2015. Finally, he captured his maiden win at home in Chiba in 2016. Foreshadowing the rivalry to come, his nearest competitor was Šonka.
“We were close to Martin, but the fans pushed us into the win,” Muroya stated at the time. “I’ve been flying for 25 years and this is my first win, so it’s a big, big moment.”
A 2017 rollercoaster
Muroya’s highest overall finish had been sixth, but in 2017 he made it his goal to win the World Championship. The difficulty of the challenge was apparent when Šonka won the season opener in Abu Dhabi while Muroya was 13th. He would start his climb from next-to-last in the standings.
The Team Falken pilot wasted no time in rebounding with a win at San Diego, USA. Suddenly, he was in third place, with Šonka still in the lead. Next would be a return to Chiba, with inevitable demands and distractions. Could he clinch a repeat victory in the pressure-cooker atmosphere?
Muroya said that fan and family support would motivate him, and when Race Day came, he earned a double repeat of back-to-back wins at home, as well as two consecutive wins in a single season. For the first time in his career, he topped the overall leaderboard. But the position was precarious: while Muroya had the higher ranking, he was tied in points with Šonka at 30 each.
Then it was Budapest, where a sleeping giant – the USA’s Kirby Chambliss – awoke for victory. While Muroya took a two-point lead in the standings, the rise of Chambliss, a double titleholder, was troubling. The Red Bull Air Race debut in Kazan, Russia, didn’t ease the worries, as Muroya took five seconds of penalties to finish 13th, while Chambliss won again. The overall rankings: Chambliss first, Muroya second, Šonka third. Said the disappointed pilot from Fukushima: “Three races are left, and we are already focusing on the next stop in Portugal.”
At Porto, however, Muroya’s season appeared to be falling apart. The pilot missed two practice sessions due to a crack in the airframe of his raceplane. After a remarkable repair effort, Muroya soared in Qualifying. But in a Round of 8 battle with Šonka on Race Day, he exceeded the allowed start speed, and the penalty knocked him out of contention, while Šonka went on to win. Muroya fell to fourth in the standings, with Šonka was back to number one and Chambliss third.
Meanwhile, the consistent Canadian Pete McLeod had quietly made his way into the title battle, moving into second overall with only two races left.
When Muroya and Šonka both made the Final 4 at the penultimate stop in Germany’s Lausitzring, Japanese fans were riveted. Muroya won and jumped up to second overall, but Šonka held on to the top of the leaderboard with a four-point advantage, and McLeod and Chambliss were still in the hunt as well. It would all come down to the season finale at the holy grail of motorsport.
An incredible finale
“The plan for Indianapolis is easy: just go fast and go get the win,” Muroya declared.
It wasn’t so simple. Muroya’s followers were concerned when their hero finished in the bottom half of the field in three Free Practice sessions, and the concern turned to alarm when Muroya struggled to only 11th place in Qualifying, which set up his Race Day pairing against Šonka. Was the pressure too much? As Muroya would only later reveal, Team Falken’s Edge 540 V3 was having engine issues, and they had less than 24 hours remaining to work them out.
In the Round of 14, the raceplane problems had disappeared, and Muroya flew to a net time of 1:04.134, just about the limit of what his simulation programs said was possible. But in turbulent winds he incurred a two-second penalty. The door was open for Šonka.
Flying in a holding pattern, Muroya could see the big screen broadcasting the run. In the first splits, the indicator was green – Šonka was ahead. And then… He clipped a pylon! Although Muroya advanced, he wasn’t rid of his rival. When pilots including McLeod and Chambliss made mistakes in the turbulence, Šonka managed to move on to the Round of 8 as the fastest loser.
The rest is now history: Muroya and Šonka breezed through the Round of 8 to find themselves together again in the Final 4. Muroya set a startling track record of 1:03.026, and had to wait to see whether Matthias Dolderer (GER), Juan Velarde (ESP) or, finally, Šonka could beat it. When Šonka had raceplane issues of his own and could manage only 1:07.280, Muroya was the World Champion. His dream – and the dream of believers all over Japan – had come true.
Joy and gratitude
Muroya himself was surprised by his super speed in the Final 4, saying, “I thought my fans and family were pushing me for maybe one second faster, and that made me win.”
One of those fans was Takuma Sato, the former Formula One driver who only a few months earlier had become the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500. Sato had come to the race to cheer, and ultimately congratulate, Muroya.
“I feel a really powerful emotion from him, and that helped me a lot,” Muroya shared. “Yesterday when we had engine issues, he helped me to keep motivated.”
Muroya also expressed appreciation to his team – whose core members include race engineer/analyst Benjamin Freelove, team coordinator Robert Fry and technician Peter Conway – as well as everyone, everywhere who supports him: “I’m in the spotlight, but there are thousands of people in the background who are working as hard as I am, and that makes us win. So thanks to my team, thanks to my family, and thanks to friends and fans,” Muroya said. “It’s been a tough year, but we made it. I am really happy.”