Australian Matt Hall on Sept. 8 became the last pilot to claim a Red Bull Air Race World Championship title. It took a hard weekend of flying to secure that spot in history.
Fourteen teams converged on Chiba, Japan, many seeking to finish a disappointing four-race campaign on a high note, and a handful with one last chance to claim victory after the Austrian energy drink giant announced in May that the series—first launched in 2003, then re-launched in 2014 after a three-year hiatus—would end after just four races in 2019, the balance of the season schedule scrapped.
The pressure, Hall said in a postrace video interview with Red Bull, “was there.” And familiar.
“I was trying to play it cool in front of the cameras, but deep down I was … I was working really hard, mentally, to keep it on the rails,” Hall said.
Hall managed just the seventh-fastest qualifying time on Sept. 7, lining him up for a first-round matchup against Michael Goulian, who improved on his own qualifying time of 58.060 seconds, but only just: Goulian’s 58.032 was a full second behind Hall’s 57.029, the fastest run of the round, and the first of two American pilots was finished with Red Bull racing.
Kirby Chambliss, the Texas-born pilot who has flown Red Bull races since the 2003 inaugural season, winning championships in 2004 and 2006, arrived in Chiba after three frustrating 2019 races and no shot at the title. He qualified dead last, and then rallied to find speed, knocking out Spain's Juan Velarde in the Round of 14 with a blistering 57.306, followed by Nicolas Ivanoff of France, in the Round of 8. The entire field slowed by fractions of a second as the day wore on, and Chambliss’ 59.601 in the final heat was good for second place, his best finish of the season.
“Of course I would have rather finished first, but it was nice that Yoshi was first, you know, here in Japan. So, yeah, I’m happy,” Chambliss told the Red Bull cameras after the race.
Muroya had nearly been eliminated in the Round of 14 in front of his home crowd, flying a 57.912 that was slower than Ben Murphy of Great Britain, but still quick enough to advance (as the “fastest loser”) to the Round of 8. A full 5 seconds of penalties collected by François Le Vot and a clean run by Muroya (57.895) sent the 2017 champion into the finals with everything on the line. He needed Hall to falter, and he needed to win, but Muroya still had a shot.
It was all but out of reach by the time Muroya got his chance to fly through the starting gate: Canadian Pete McLeod flew first in the finals, clipped a gate, and incurred further penalty for failing to fly level through another gate, piling five penalty seconds onto his track time for a total of 1:04.028. Hall needed to finish in third place or higher, and only needed to “keep it on the rails” and fly one last clean run to become Red Bull’s last champion pilot. Chambliss kept some pressure on Hall by clocking a final run of 59.601, slotting in to second place. But Hall needed only third place to win the season title by a single point, and that he did: The last pilot to race through a Red Bull course managed a clean run, 1:00.052, nearly 4 seconds ahead of McLeod.
Hall said the result was “bittersweet, because it’s the last race.” Still, he continued, “it feels good to be the best in the world at something.”