Ascot opening day was full of surprises with Canada’s Pete McLeod winning the qualifying while championship leader Hannes Arch of Austria had an off day, finishing fifth. Britain’s Nigel Lamb was third and Paul Bonhomme a lowly seventh in front of a home crowd numbering 22,000.
Paul Bonhomme, the reigning Air Race World Champion said: “I think the wind changed the game hugely today. In training yesterday we had virtually no wind and suddenly we’ve got a monster wind from the west today. Down here in the Ascot bowl it feels quite calm but you go up there and you suddenly get a 25-knot wind. Picking the right line is quite difficult. We’re happy with the flying. We had two little engine setting issues, that’s a factor. We were very happy with our training time earlier. He added: “People keep asking me about the home crowd pressure, but I’m not feeling flustered. The pressure is from all the other guys going quickly. Everyone seems to have a quick run here and then a duffer. It’s going to be a completely new day tomorrow and we’ll see what happens.”
McLeod mastered the challenging course set up above the historic horse race track west of London on a bright but blustery day and posted a winning time of 1:10.698. France’s Nicolas Ivanoff was second on 1:11.585 while Lamb took third in 1:11.842. McLeod said: “I had a great time and I’m really happy with my position. I’m definitely satisfied with my performance today. I had a lot of confidence and executed my strategy. I think my first run set me up nicely for my second qualifying run. I just took some more risks on the second run, turned in a little earlier on the gates but I wanted to fly penalty free and even though I risked a bit more in the second run it worked. I know I need to work on avoiding getting a penalty for exceeding the 10g limit. I wouldn’t use the word ‘dominate’ here after qualifying because Hannes has the ability to run this track even a little bit faster. He was having a good run in Quali 2 but he just got a little rattled or something. It doesn’t get any better on qualifying day than to take first placed. I’m definitely satisfied. It’s been a good progression for me on this track, from training to qualifying.”
The 12 pilots in the world’s fastest motorsport series delighted the big qualifying day crowd, fashionably dressed as they watched from the grandstands and grass terraces, as they roared past from the first standing start in the sport’s history. The cheers were loudest for Britain’s Bonhomme, who is second in the championship behind Arch, and Lamb, who is third overall. Both put in solid runs on the undulating course filled with trees, shrubbery, ponds and other obstacles.
Also taking place on Saturday at Ascot was the Challenger Cup with pilot Halim Othman of Malaysia claiming the top step of the podium. A smiling Othman proudly held the flag of Malaysia while his national anthem played, as the 48-year-old won the first Challenger Cup podium of his career. The decorated Malaysian air display team leader and former top gun pilot in the Royal Malaysian Air Force put in a strong effort on the first track of the season over land instead of water to jump from last place in the standings to the top six.
The Challenger Cup is a new element of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, which gives the next generation of promising pilots the chance to develop their low-altitude flying skills under racing conditions.
“I’m very happy – I didn’t really expect this,” he said after congratulating his fellow podium finishers, England’s Tom Bennet in second, who got a rousing cheer from the Ascot crowd, and Claudius Spiegel of Germany in third. The Challenger Cup contenders will have their next opportunity to earn points when the Red Bull Air Race comes to Fort Worth, Texas, in the United States in September.