AutoMatters & More: Red Bull Air Race World Championship Returns to San Diego

2008 Red Bull Air Race in San Diego

2008 Red Bull Air Race in San Diego

(Jan Wagner / (C) 2015 Jan R. Wagner,

After an absence of eight years, the globe-spanning Red Bull Air Race series returned to picturesque San Diego in 2017.

In Red Bull Air Race competition, pilots maneuver their purpose-built, single seater, prop driven aircraft through the high G-force course one-at-a-time. Their goal is to set the quickest time within the rules, which demand incredibly precise and high-speed flying.

The racecourse is defined by a series of Air Gates – towering, inflatable pylons that are placed individually and in pairs. In the case of the San Diego event, these pylons sit atop floating bases in San Diego Bay.

2008 Red Bull Air Race in San Diego
2008 Red Bull Air Race in San Diego (Jan Wagner / )

The electronic timing is activated when a plane crosses the start line, and ends when the raceplane crosses the checkered Air Gate at the finish line. In between, the pilots must fly the course horizontally except for in the Chicane, where they must negotiate a challenging line of single pylons – quickly turning in and out between them, slalom style.

Any way you look at it, the visual backdrop for the San Diego round is absolutely spectacular. From the San Diego side of San Diego Bay you would have seen the peninsula of Coronado and the picture-postcard-perfect, long and curving, iconic Coronado Bridge. Alternatively, from the Coronado side, the view is of San Diego – renowned as “America’s Finest City” and “the birthplace of naval aviation.”

Bo105 aerobatic helicopter demonstration of death-defying looping flight
Bo105 aerobatic helicopter demonstration of death-defying looping flight (Jan Wagner / )

This year, marking a first for San Diego, there were two classes of competition: the Master Class and the Challenger Class.

The Challenger Class was created to help prepare the next generation of Red Bull Air Race pilots to obtain their competition license for the Master Class, which is at the pinnacle of the competition. To qualify for the Challenger Cup, the Challenger Class pilots must fly in a minimum of three of the opening seven races of the season, and only the top three results of each pilot will count in the overall standings, so fans may not necessarily see some of the Challenger Class pilots competing at any particular event. After the seventh race the top six pilots will be qualified to compete in the final.

Clipping an inflatable pylon earns a 3-second penalty
Clipping an inflatable pylon earns a 3-second penalty (Jan Wagner / )

This year’s Challenger Class includes Mélanie Astles, a five-time French Aerobatic Champion who, in 2016, became the first female pilot in the Red Bull Air Race. She did not compete in San Diego. Following the September event in Portugal, Florian Bergér of Germany – who won in San Diego – is comfortably in first place in the Challenger Class Championship, followed by Kevin Coleman of the USA.

In San Diego’s Master Class, 14 pilots competed. Matthias Dolderer of Germany emerged from the Saturday qualification rounds on top of the standings. The three top qualifiers (Dolderer, Michael Goulian of the USA and Martin Sonka of Czechoslovakia) were separated by less than a second. Dolderer “once compared the precision flying of the Red Bull Air Race to trying to park a car in a garage while travelling at nearly 400kmh” (that’s VERY fast).

Yoshihide “Yoshi” Muroya – 2017 San Diego Red Bull Air Race winner
Yoshihide “Yoshi” Muroya – 2017 San Diego Red Bull Air Race winner (Jan Wagner / )

Peter Podlunsek of Slovenia – a past graduate of the Challenger Class – shone in the Master Class competition’s “Round of 14,” taking a convincing early lead, but he lost that lead in the “Round of 8” to Japan’s Yoshihide “Yoshi” Muroya. The stage was set for a shoot-out with the quickest four pilots, who would soon determine the San Diego champion.

Podlunsek posted a solid time to beat. Dolderer accepted that challenge but, in doing so, earned himself a three-second penalty for clipping a pylon. He finished in third place. American Kirby Chamblis also received a time penalty for “Incorrect Passing of an Air Gate: Flying Too High.” That left “Yoshi” Muroya on top, with a clean best run and maximum points (15).

Ever the optimist, “Yoshi” is known for having brought pre-race meditation to the sport, which certainly seems to be working for him. His path to the Red Bull Air Race began with flying gliders at his university glider club in 1991. He transitioned to aerobatic flying in 1996.

With just two events remaining, including the final in Indianapolis (the second of the two U.S. events), the series championship is far from decided. Just 10 points separate the top four pilots: Martin Sonka (Czechoslovakia), Pete McLeod (Canada), Kirby Chamblis (USA) and “Yoshi” Muroya (Japan). The next round, sure to be exciting, will be the weekend of Sept. 16-17 in Lausitz, Germany. For more information, visit

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Copyright © 2017 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #505