Michael Goulian missed the final round by 0.008 seconds as the Red Bull Air Race World Championship season began in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, while fellow American Kirby Chambliss endured bitter disappointment of his own on race day.
In Formula 1, that other world motorsports championship, qualifying day is often called “go fast day,” and so it was with Red Bull air racing. American pilots took that to heart Feb. 10, finishing second (Goulian) and third (Chambliss) behind Martin Šonka of the Czech Republic. Šonka, hungry to bounce back from a his own disappointments in 2016, flew a blistering 52.097 seconds on "go fast day." That run set a mark that would go unchallenged for the rest of the weekend, faster than Šonka's 53.139-second run in the finals that was good for first place in the first race of the 2017 campaign, and his first race ever in a series in which he has flown since 2010.
Goulian and Chambliss could not top their own qualifying runs. Goulian on Feb. 10 stopped the clock at 52.458 seconds, faster than the race winning time to come the following day, and Chambliss was right behind with a 52.500-second qualification. Had the blizzard that pummeled Goulian’s Massachusetts home just ahead of race weekend grounded the racing in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 11 instead (as if), thus freezing the race results in order of qualifying times, it would have been better for the American teams.
Judges caught Chambliss climbing through a gate in his Round of 14 matchup against Francois Le Vot, and the 2-second penalty ended his hope to advance. Goulian beat perennial contender Matt Hall of Australia in that same round, but heartbreak followed in the Round of 8, Goulian missing a Final Four spot by 0.008 seconds to Pete McLeod of Canada.
“The wind, I think was a little bit of a factor and I was a little worried about it because Peter Podlunsek had a crowd line infringement call and I thought that might have been due to the wind, so I took it a little more relaxed between the chicane and gate number 3,” Goulian said in remarks posted by his team. In the vertical turn, a half-loop course reversal, Goulian felt a “slight aerodynamic stall” that cost him just enough energy and velocity to lose the head-to-head matchup by the thinnest of margins.
“I made some really small corrections in the track, and they would've cost me the time. I'm happy not only with my raceplane and my team, but also my flying,” Goulian said. “We're on a really good trajectory and going to keep going.”
Chambliss was left fuming after failing to advance past Le Vot’s relatively modest 54.410 seconds, a gate penalty dragging Chambliss out of the points, with a 55.844-second run that was only good for eleventh overall in a series where points go to the top 10 pilots in each race.
“It’s unfortunate,” Chambliss said in a post-race comment posted online by Red Bull. “I went out there with a good plan and my team was working well. The bad thing with this is that it really does play with your confidence.”
Chambliss and the rest of the field have two months to collect themselves and prepare for the first American race of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in 2017: San Diego will host the series April 15 and 16, and tickets are now on sale.