Kirby Chambliss and Michael Goulian posted respectable times in their first laps through the Red Bull Air Race course in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 6, overcoming a few challenges created by a quick turn into a new year of racing.
The two American pilots returning for another year of high-energy air racing are hungry this year (and not just because they have to watch what they eat to maintain racing weight). Each is a veteran of the series with more than a few wins to his credit. Chambliss was part of the inaugural field in 2003, and has three championship titles to his name. Goulian came within a whisker of winning it all in 2018, but finished third in the season standings after engine trouble and a clipped pylon allowed Martin Šonka of the Czech Republic to slip past and claim the title in Fort Worth, Texas, in November.
“Nobody had a chance to play with the airplanes,” said Paulo Iscold, the race engineer and tactician for Team Chambliss, in a phone interview.
Pablo Branco, who handles strategy and engineering for Goulian’s team, said in an interview with AOPA Live on Feb. 6 that the team managed to make a couple of changes without the airplane in hand, “a few things that we did remotely and had them installed here.”
The season begins with two of the eight planned Red Bull Air Race locations and dates still to be determined, including the second race of the season, to be held somewhere in Europe.
AOPA members should circle one race on the calendar in particular: Red Bull will return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway Oct. 19 and 20, and AOPA is working with Red Bull to create some unique opportunities there, as well as other aviation events during the course of the year. Red Bull and AOPA staff will work together to provide some new and unique experiences for members at AOPA Fly-Ins and other shows. The details are still under wraps pending finalization of schedules and such, so stay tuned.
Iscold and Team Chambliss arrived in Abu Dhabi facing a somewhat bigger technical challenge than the rest of the field: A modification made to Chambliss’ race plane, approved by Red Bull technical staff in 2018, was ruled out by Red Bull for 2019 just two weeks before practice flying was to begin. That modification was a linkage between ailerons and elevator that turned the ailerons into flaps. When Chambliss pulled on the stick, both ailerons would deflect slightly downward and increase lift, allowing Chambliss to pull more Gs with less drag, and more margin to pull without stalling the wing.
“The difference in time on the turns was amazing,” Iscold said, a touch of nostalgia evident in his voice. Iscold said that while approved by Red Bull, the setup was a secret guarded from the other teams. “It took a while for the people to realize that we had the system.”
Paul Bonhomme, a Red Bull champion turned television commentator, noticed the unusual aileron movement on a camera shot during a midseason race and let the cat out of the bag. Iscold said other teams would have been hard-pressed to duplicate the system, which requires some tuning to achieve its potential. Iscold said replacing the custom-made parts with originals was not an insurmountable obstacle, but a big disappointment nonetheless.
“We are good fighters,” Iscold said. “We are going to find a way to overcome that.”
Branco was a bit more sanguine about the short-notice technical rule change.
“If you ask me, I’ll say it’s fair,” Branco said. “That mod makes Kirby’s airplane faster than I would like it to be.”
The 2019 season brings a few other changes to the race rules, and among the most significant of these pertain to awarding championship points. Qualifying among the top three fastest will now be rewarded with championship points, not just a favorable matchup in the first round, and the points awarded to the top four finishers on race day have also increased.
“That’s a bit of a game-changer for us,” Branco said, noting that Goulian was frequently among the fastest qualifiers during the 2018 campaign. “We like how we do on Saturday, and it’s good to get rewarded for that performance.”
Goulian himself, in an interview from Abu Dhabi with AOPA Live, said he is eager to pick up right where he left off, and build on his best season to date.
“We had an unbelievable year last year,” Goulian said. “Just so much work that went into that from our entire team … there was a lot of magic to it.”
Goulian said he sensed that same momentum carrying forward into the new season.
“It’s all about momentum, it’s all about confidence,” Goulian said. “You have to have that swagger. There’s nothing I think that I can do any better from a flying standpoint. It’s really in your head.”
Both Chambliss, entering his fourteenth Red Bull season, and Goulian, poised to fly his twelfth, are also being asked if this year will be their last.
“It’s a good question,” Goulian said, noting that the Red Bull schedule, with eight venues around the world, requires a huge commitment of time away from home and family, and also limits his U.S. airshow performances (though he still keeps a busy schedule with those). Still, he said, “when you’re down on the race track there’s nothing that is better than that.”
Goulian said he’ll be talking with his team and his family, looking to make a decision for the future around the midway point in the season this summer.
“Do my team and I have really the deep-down desire to give it 110 percent?” Goulian said. “That’s really what it takes.”
Iscold said there have been rumors that Chambliss may hang it up at the end of the season, but “I don’t know that he agrees with that,” adding that those rumors may actually turn out to be bad news for Chambliss’ competition: “The fact the rumor is there will put more energy in him.”
Iscold said that he has a few other ideas to squeeze a little more speed out of the airplane, and there should be time after Abu Dhabi to spend a bit more quality shop time making those changes.
“We have other ideas in our pocket… now I need to push hard to make them work,” Iscold said.
As for Abu Dhabi, qualifying will be held Feb. 8 and race day is Feb. 9 (a slight departure from the typical schedule of qualifying on Saturday and racing on Sunday). Red Bull will stream the action live online.