Tourism Malaysia

Racing Over Putrajaya

Red Bull Air Race, the world’s fastest motorsport, makes its debut appearance in Malaysia before a captive crowd.

The bright yellow plane zoomed by, nimbly manoeuvring past 25-metre high Air Gates, a trail of smoke the only evidence of its flight path just seconds ago. Another plane followed, as one by one, all 12 Master Cup pilots of the 2014 Red Bull Air Race World Championship took turns demonstrating skills outside the league of ordinary aviators: vertical climbs, upside-down dives, side turns, fast corners, and the mad sprint to the finish line.

Small Planes, Big Ambitions
Man has always wanted to fly. We do so on borrowed wings – whether it’s in the passenger seat, or in direct manipulation of the controls. For the latter, only a few graduate to the level of those elite Red Bull Air Race pilots who wowed spectators with their ultra-precise, low-level, high-speed flying.

The weekend race on 17-18 May 2014 over the stunning 600-hectare Putrajaya Lake was historic for two reasons: It was the race’s inaugural run in Malaysia and east Asia, and the first time Malaysia fielded a representative via former Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) pilot Halim Othman, nicknamed Toogoo, who competed in the Challenger Cup.

Getting Up to Speed
While the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has been around since 2005, awareness of the sport is generally low amongst Malaysians. This is where a little knowledge of the facts and figures will go a long way in helping you better appreciate the sport.

With a top speed of approximately 370kph, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship is the fastest motorsport series in the world (Formula One cars race at speeds of up to 350kph). Unlike aerobatic flying and airshows, the focus here—as its name implies—is on racing. Pilots speed through a low-level aerial track marked out by inflatable Air Gates, gunning for the fastest time without incurring penalties such as flying too high above an Air Gate, or hitting a pylon, which would result in immediate disqualification.

At each venue, the top nine places earn World Championship points. The ultimate Red Bull Air Race World Champion will be the pilot with the most points at the end of the season.

Day 1: Smoke On
As the 12 Master Class pilots geared up for Day 1’s action, a morning shower may have cooled the searing heat, but not the competitive tension. The Masters’ training session went underway at about 1pm, followed by the Masters’ Qualifiers. At the close of Qualifying Day, favourite Hannes Arch of Austria led the Master Class pack with a time of 01:15.144, with Canada’s Pete McLeod in a distant second.

Day 1 also saw the next generation of Red Bull Air Race pilots take to the skies in the Challenger Cup, a new addition to the 2014 season. Although Datuk Halim Othman placed a commendable third in training, our local hero only managed sixth in the final Challenger Cup tally, which was won by Frenchman Francois Le Vot.

Racing Against the Clock
When races are won in microseconds (in the final leg of the 2010 race in New York, Nigel Lamb from Great Britain edged American Kirby Chambliss by 3/100ths of a second for the second spot), every move counts. One has to maintain extreme focus and precision, even when battling forces of up to 10G. Especially when battling forces of up to 10G.

To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine bench pressing a small car six times per minute while navigating through a course at speeds of 370kph. Each time you pull a high G, the blood from your head drains to your feet, leaving you on the verge of passing out. To avoid greyout, pilots contract their stomach and thigh muscles to restrict the blood going downwards. The mandatory G-Race suit helps reduce fatigue by enhancing compression using water-filled ‘fluid muscles’.

While physics takes its toll on pilots, there are other things to worry about, like heat and humidity, mind games, and picking the right strategy. After all, as we have learnt, shaving off even a few microseconds counts.

Day 2: Speed, Skill, Guts, Glory
Race Day. With a 60% chance of rain, the Putrajaya skyline was overcast again, but there was definitely more colour in the crowd which had swelled overnight. Around the Putrajaya Lake, families and aviation fans set up their viewing spots, or lounged comfortably on provided seating.

Above, the 12 Master Class pilots chased the clock. The six winners of the heats and the two fastest losers proceeded to the Super 8 round. An aerial intermission with aerobatic stunt planes took the edge off the air, thick with anticipation. Then it was down to the Final 4.

The first off the runway, Briton Nigel Lamb blazed the track with a time of 01:15.023, setting a new course record. Matt Hall of Australia was up next, posting a time of 01:15.597. Pete McLeod, who topped the Super 8, was next in line, but received a controversial DNF (Did Not Finish) for exceeding the 200-knot speed limit at the start gate. All eyes were then on Hannes Arch. As his silver plane zoomed past the finish line at 01:15.597, it was official: 56-year-old Nigel Lamb had won his first career title after 44 races, five second-place finishes, and seven years of racing.

French novelist Gustave Flaubert once wrote, “An infinity of passion can be contained within a minute.” While the passion that drives these pilots to the peak of their game may not be something easily discernible to the naked eye, especially from ground level, simply being able to witness live these gentlemen’s commitment to their sport is a privilege that Malaysians now have.

On his win, an emotional Lamb said, “I never thought I’d feel this emotion. It’s a great feeling. After seven years, and all the ups and downs, this is the payoff.”

Added Lamb, “Flying around Malaysia is amazing. The people are wonderful and the food is great. I knew it was going to be great here.”

We look forward to welcoming these soaring heroes to our shores again next year at the 2015 Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

Fast Facts

  • Red Bull Air Race World Championship is the fastest motorsport series in the world with a top speed of approximately 370kph. In actuality, the top speeds achievable by the race planes range from 425.97kph (230 knots) to 444kph (240 knots).
  • Red Bull Air Race World Championship is the fastest motorsport series in the world with a top speed of approximately 370kph. In actuality, the top speeds achievable by the race planes range from 425.97kph (230 knots) to 444kph (240 knots).
  • The average length of a Red Bull Air Race track is approximately 6km.
  • Starting this year, the engines, propellers and exhausts of planes have been standardised, thus levelling the playing field.
  • The pylons that form an Air Gate now stand at 25 metres high, 5 metres higher than in the 2010 Red Bull Air Race World Championship.
  • The top part of each pylon is made from spinnaker fabric – the same lightweight material used to make boat sails.
  • Pylons must rip apart instantly and easily if a plane touches them, yet be sturdy enough to remain stationery in all weather conditions, including stormy weather and strong winds.
  • In 2003, it took 20 minutes to repair an Air Gate. In 2010, the repair record was down to 90 seconds for a full repair.
  • All pilots of the Challenger Cup fly the same plane, the Extra 330 LX.
  • According to Breitling, the official timekeeper, time will be measured in thousandths of a second. There is also a photo-finish system which has a resolution of 1/10,000th of a second. That system will be used if two pilots have the exact same time at 1/1,000th of a second.
  • Born in 1984, Canadian Pete McLeod is the Red Bull Air Race Championship’s youngest pilot. And while Hungarian Peter Besenyei (nicknamed The Godfather) and Nigel Lamb share the same birth year (1956), Besenyei leads the other side of the scale by a few months.

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