The beginnings of a stars-and-stripes comeback could be seen in flashes of brilliance and glimmers of hope as the Red Bull Air Race World Championship launched the 2016 season in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 11 and 12.
Kirby Chambliss and Mike Goulian did not erase all of the frustration of 2014 and 2015, and did not make the final round, but they did score points: six for Chambliss and five for Goulian, roughly a third of the combined totals that each pilot had accumulated over the preceding two years. They also were posting highly competitive times, even in their losses.
“We are ready to make a run at this,” Goulian announced on Twitter March 12.
Goulian’s freshly modified Edge 540 racer helped him qualify with the third fastest time on the field: 59.184 seconds through the twisting course marked by inflated pylons floating just offshore.
Chambliss was the only pilot who did not manage to post a qualifying time, and that left him matched against Australian Matt Hall in the first head-to-head round, which in years past would have been a sure-fire formula for failure. But Chambliss stormed back and posted the only sub-one-minute time in the Round of 14, and advanced with a convincing win over Hall, who clipped a gate and took a three-second penalty that ended his race weekend in the first round. The tables had already begun to turn.
Goulian was matched in the first round against Francois Le Vot, and edged the Frenchman out by 0.099 seconds to advance, as did Le Vot thanks to posting the fastest time among the first-round losers. Le Vot then had an easy advance in the following round past Japan’s Yoshihide Muroya, who did not post a time.
A blistering 58.729 seconds by perennial contender Hannes Arch of Austria ended Goulian’s weekend (the No. 99 managed a 59.449 seconds) in the second round, but Arch had his own troubles in the finals, crossing a safety line after Gate 3 and earning a disqualification that put him entirely out of the points.
Chambliss, meanwhile, lost a spot in the finals to eventual winner Nicolas Ivanoff of France, who went on to post the fastest time of the weekend (58.550 seconds) in the final round and capture the first victory of 2016.
“I heard Nicolas’ time on the radio before entering the track and knew I would have to go fast while still balancing the safety line,” Chambliss said in remarks quoted by Red Bull online. “I did what I could do but he still got me by 0.65 (seconds). I'm not super happy with fourth place. I’d rather be on the podium, but from where we were yesterday after Qualifying I am really happy with the improvements made. We still have some work to do but we are headed in the right direction."
Arch’s disqualification also boosted the point totals for Chambliss and Goulian, who came away with fourth place (6 points) and fifth place (5 points), respectively.
Another bright spot for American race fans was provided by Challenger Cup rookie Kevin Coleman, who took second place in his first Red Bull event.
The series continues in Spielberg, Austria, April 23 and 24 at the Red Bull Ring, though American fans will have a chance to see Chambliss and Goulian fly their race machines even sooner, during the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo. Demonstrations are planned during the afternoon airshows April 8, 9, and 10 (weather permitting) in Lakeland, Florida.