Courtesy of Red Bull Air Race Media Service Team
After 90 races since the sport started in 2003, the Red Bull Air Race has its first World Champion from the Czech Republic. On Sunday, 18 November 2018, Martin Šonka of Sezimovo Ústí earned the overall title, clinching the coveted trophy with a masterful win at Texas Motor Speedway. The top step of the podium was a long way from the lows he had faced at the start of the season.
Šonka gave up a career in the Czech Air Force to devote himself to competitive flying, joining the Red Bull Air Race in 2010. In 2017 he very nearly took the crown: Holding the overall lead in the final round of the final race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it took just 67 seconds for Šonka’s title hopes to melt away as, flying last, he couldn’t match the pace of Japan’s Yoshihide Muroya. His first World Championship podium was a milestone achievement, but the runner-up position made it bittersweet.
“It’s always harder when you’re in the lead and then lose it, rather than being in second and not getting on top,” said the disappointed pilot. Šonka was determined that if – that is, when – he got another chance, the result would be different.
DQ times two
At February’s 2018 season opener in Abu Dhabi, the Muroya-Šonka rivalry was renewed, with Muroya finishing second and Šonka appearing to take third behind a surprise winner, Michael Goulian of the USA. But the surprises kept coming when Šonka’s Final 4 run was disqualified due to a technical infraction discovered in post-race inspections. The DQ dropped him only one place, to fourth, but the two points he lost would become increasingly important.
Then, in Cannes, France, the unimaginable happened. Šonka defeated Goulian in the Round of 8, only to be disqualified moments later for a different technical infraction. The American flew all the way to third place, while Muroya also made the Final 4, and Matt Hall of Australia – a two-time runner-up in the World Championship himself – captured the win. Šonka fell to fifth overall, and some observers suspected that his campaign had already derailed.
At the Red Bull Air Race return to Japan, a confident Hall won again to tie in the overall points with Goulian. Šonka finished on the podium, pulling himself up one rung to fourth overall, but with only 19 points to 36 each for the Australian and the American, it was a long way to the top.
Besides their other technical issues, Red Bull Team Šonka had been struggling with sluggish engine performance, but the break before the June race in Budapest gave them just enough time to install fresh cylinders. Sensing new life in his raceplane, Šonka flew to his full potential, converting pole position to victory in the race.
At the next stop in Kazan, Russia, Šonka logged another win, jumping to second overall, just six points behind Goulian. Czech fans were sure they could feel momentum building, and they weren’t wrong.
Suddenly, it was September. The season was narrowing down to a three-way standoff among Goulian, Šonka and Hall as race six took off at Wiener Neustadt, Austria; and the pressure was on for Šonka to continue his ascent by becoming just the fourth Red Bull Air Race pilot ever to win three consecutive races. After Goulian failed to advance out of the opening round, Šonka edged out Muroya and Hall to seal his three-peat and claim the head of the standings.
“I can’t describe the feeling of winning three in a row, there are no words,” Šonka shared. “But [there is] a lot of work in front of us – two big battles until the end of the championship.”
Hall, for one, intended to make those battles as tough as possible, declaring, “Martin’s definitely beatable. He’s flying very cleanly, and his plane is pretty fast, but we set the fastest time of the day in the Round of 8. We’re doing the right stuff to be able to win races.”
Šonka had the chance to sew up the title in the season’s penultimate race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but once again he was unlucky at the famous oval. In a reversal of Wiener Neustadt, it was Šonka who lost his Round of 14 head-to-head, with Goulian winning the race and Hall finishing in the middle of the pack. Now Goulian was back on top of the leaderboard, with Šonka five points behind and Hall trailing by an additional two.
Goulian remarked, “Everybody wanted a fight to the finish for the World Championship, and that’s what they’re going to get.”
All or nothing
Šonka tried to put his latest Indianapolis stumble behind him. “It was a great test of our mental strength as a team, and we just didn’t give up,” he stated. With the three leading pilots separated by seven slim points, the season finale at Fort Worth would be a test of nerve as much as skill. Who would blink?
After delivering a career-best season, Goulian struggled from the start at Texas Motor Speedway. He was slowed by engine troubles in his opening head-to-head but squeaked through. Then he faced Šonka in the Round of 8. Just one of the two World Championship contenders would make it to the Final 4, and that pilot was Šonka, who was a steady, smooth blur in the sky while Goulian incurred two penalties. Only Hall stood in the way of a Czech championship, and in the Final 4 he threw down the gauntlet with a time of 53.100s. Hearing that result as he flew a holding pattern, Šonka knew he couldn’t afford to play it safe. With steely assurance, he delivered an aggressive yet penalty-free run that stopped the clock quicker than Hall with 0.304s to spare. Minutes later, the Czech national anthem was playing in the awards ceremony.
Acknowledging his home fans as he celebrated with team members Josef Šonka, Petr Františ, Lance Winter and Ivan Krákora, Šonka commented, “I’m very proud that such a little country from the middle of Europe has the World Championship in such a beautiful motorsport. And I’m very happy that this sport is seen on TV and is becoming widely known in my country.”
He continued, “It was an incredible season for us, and it was a great honor to fight for the title with these pilots. I think it was very interesting for spectators that it came down to the last flight of the season – the same as last year. But this time we just grabbed it, and we’re World Champions.”
About Red Bull Air Race:
Created in 2003, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has held 90 races around the globe. The Red Bull Air Race World Championship features the world’s best race pilots in a pure motorsport competition that combines speed, precision and skill. Using the fastest, most agile, lightweight racing planes, pilots hit speeds of 370kmh while enduring forces of up to 12G as they navigate a low-level slalom track marked by 25-meter-high, air-filled pylons. In 2014, the Challenger Cup was conceived to help the next generation of pilots develop the skills needed for potential advancement to the Master Class that vies for the World Championship.
For more, please visit www.redbullairracenewsroom.com