20 Nov 2014 23:00
Photo and text by Carsten Snejbjerg
The Red Bull Air Race World Championship in Spielberg, Austria would be decided among three seasoned pilots, going wing-to-wing to capture the top spot on the podium and to take the big trophy home. Among the three was the hometown favorite Hannes Arch. Excitement around the race was palpable as the pilots prepared to take to the sky.
With an arena filled to capacity and a picturesque landscape with a clear blue sky, big green trees and mountains that almost framed the arena, conditions were perfect for the Air Race season's grand finale. 35,000 fans from around the world flocked to Spielberg and settled into a huge campsite right in front of the sold-out Red Bull Ring. A large proportion of these were Austrians who came to see the local hero Hannes Arch.
Going into the race in second place in the overall standings and with a fresh course record, set during the week's training, Arch was favored to take home the title of world champion, just 30 minutes drive from the town he grew up in.
Sunday's grand finale was also an important race for the 50-year-old British pilot Paul Bonhomme, for whom a victory would have meant becoming the only pilot in the world with three World Championship titles. But after a disappointing qualifying in which he made only 6th place, he was under serious pressure to prepare and review the lines he’d be flying. Line Selection is central to avoiding penalty seconds, the most crucial factor in a Red Bull Air Race.
Despite the extra pressure on Paul's shoulders, he spent his Sunday quietly preparing in the hangar. After a good breakfast, briefing he rest of the team, his strategy was finalized. After the plane’s final check, it was polished to a shine.
"If we win, it will probably be difficult to get hold of me when I start to drink beer," Bonhomme laughed.
Paul ended up drinking beer on Sunday night, but not because he lifted the trophy.
The finale ended up being a race between local favorite Hannes Arch and the 58-year-old Englishman Nigel Lamb. All the shortlisted favorites were among the top eight, but since the four fastest pilots in the qualifier were made it to the final four, Bonhomme was out due to his 6th-place best time.
Local fans covered the tribunes of the recently revamped Red Bull Ring in Austrian colors and held giant letters that together formed "GO HANNES." After breaking out in wild cheers several times, the Austrian fans packed into the stadium held their breath when Nigel Lambs aircraft approached the start gate.
The crowd was even further out on chairs edge when Nigel Lamb only recorded the second best time of the event, leaving Arch a golden opportunity to knock Lamb down to third place and win the title. However, on his on the last lap, approximately 15 seconds from goal, he made a mistake that cost him the title. A tiny error in his manoeuvre cost him two penalty seconds, giving Nigel Lamb - the second oldest pilot in competition - the World Championship title.
A man with plenty of British humor, the Oxford-based Lamb was not slow to thank Hannes Arch for his title-giving mistake.