Challenger Class look-back: a season report on the top five

Courtesy of Red Bull Air Race Media Service Team

Ten pilots competed for the 2018 Challenger Cup in the second competition category of the Red Bull Air Race. Poland’s Luke Czepiela captured the first title of his career, but the season was a nailbiter, with five standouts battling for the crown to the very end.

The 2018 calendar started with high anticipation, as the Challenger Class field switched to Edge 540 V2 raceplanes, a version of the aircraft flown by the Master Class teams in the World Championship. German pilot Florian Bergér was on the hunt for a third consecutive Challenger Cup trophy, and he seemed on track with a race win at February’s season opener in Abu Dhabi. But the podium hinted at rivalries to come, with Czepiela taking second place and the USA’s Kevin Coleman standing in third.

Bergér assessed, “Perhaps it will be possible to have another overall win of the Challenger Cup, but it will be quite tough.”

Stop two in Cannes, France, proved just how difficult it would be, as Sweden’s Daniel Ryfa, who had finished runner-up to Bergér in two previous seasons, was victorious, while Baptiste Vignes of France gave the home fans a thrill with second place.

The next Challenger Class race came in June, with the classic stop at Budapest, Hungary; where the battle for the top of the leaderboard intensified as Bergér won Qualifying with Czepiela in second. But the positions switched on Race Day as Czepiela threw down a Challenger Class track record for the win. Halfway through the season, the Pole and the German weretied in the points.

His confidence growing, Czepiela stated, “I think I’ve put a lot of pressure on him [Bergér]… and I can put on more in the next races.”

The American Coleman also turned up the heat, recording a triumph of his own at the August race in Kazan, Russia. “It was a hell of a race. Now we’re moving toward the final, and hopefully we’ll get some points and I’ll make a run at this thing,” Coleman commented.

Then came the only Challenger Class double-header of the year, with two races in Wiener Neustadt, Austria. Czepiela and Bergér were each slated for one race, and when the German had to withdraw due to personal reasons, his opponents took the opportunity to gain ground, with Czepiela posting one second-place result and Ryfa capturing the other, while Vignes earned third in both races. Only two stops in the USA remained before the Challenger Cup Champion would be crowned.

As the penultimate race of 2018 opened at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Hong Kong’s Kenny Chiang held the overall lead thanks primarily to winning both Wiener Neustadt races, but his advantage would evaporate when illnesses forced him not to fly on Race Day at both US stops. Czepiela held 26 points, Vignes had 22 and Ryfa 20. Meanwhile Bergér clasped only 18 points and Coleman 16, both at risk of falling below the cut-off point for a berth in the season finale.

Cheered by local fans, Coleman appeared unbeatable in the Indianapolis race, blazing to a Challenger Class track record above the speedway infield. For Bergér, the pressure was on. Despite not having raced in over three months, the German showed steely nerve and denied Coleman a home win by a margin of 0.263s. Participating in only three races, fewer than any other pilot, Bergér had managed to put himself at the top of the leaderboard by a margin of two points over Czepiela – but any of the five pilots competing in the final, including Coleman, Vignes and Ryfa, would be close enough to snatch the crown.

At the season finale at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, it was Ryfa who came out charging with the best result in Free Practice 1, while Vignes clocked the top times in Free Practice 2 and 3. But Bergér would have none of it, seizing the momentum and pole position in Qualifying.

Czepiela, however, stuck to his usual process of gradually building momentum as race week went on. Still, when he finished last in all but one Free Practice, as well as in Qualifying, onlookers wondered whether he was simply being cautious, or whether his race mojo had deserted him just when he needed it most.

The answer came on Race Day, when Coleman, Vignes and Ryfa all incurred penalties in the turbulent track. Czepiela flew a clean, but not spectacular, 57.736s – leaving the door open. The very last to fly, Bergér had the crowd on their feet as he was neck and neck with Czepiela’s split times, but he crossed the finish line in second by a minuscule 0.052s, giving Poland its first Red Bull Air Race title. Bergér finished second in the race and in the World Championship, with Coleman in third on both podiums.

“I’m speechless, it feels super exciting!” exclaimed  Czepiela, who has competed in four Challenger Class seasons. Mentioning the switch to the Edge raceplane, he added, “The Edge is a massive step up for us. It’s a lot faster and more maneuverable than the Extra we used to fly. Before we were something like 10 seconds slower than the Master Class pilots, and now we are maybe 3 or 4 seconds behind. We all enjoy flying it.”

But the humble new champion also believes he has more to learn, and he also has bigger dreams. “My flying has improved a lot this season, but I would like to do more ground-based preparation before the race, to work out the fastest lines way before coming to the track, sort of like what tacticians do for the Master Class,” he concluded. “I hope I will be given the opportunity one day to join the pilots in the World Championship.”


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.



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