Paul Bonhomme is the 2009 Red Bull Air Race World Champion.
With hindsight it’s always better to win the hard way – though it may not appear so at the time. Paul Bonhomme certainly didn’t take the easy route to his triumph, but as his red and white Edge 540 rotated crisply through a wine-glass victory roll and headed off into the deep blue Mediterranean sky, he probably felt the better for it.
Bonhomme won the Barcelona Red Bull Air Race. He won half the races this year and came second in the other half. It was the right and proper way to conclude affairs – but an hour earlier he would cheerfully have settled for the third place finish he needed.
Before the final proper, the wildcard round saw Yoshi Muroya and Pete McLeod admitted to the Top 12. McLeod with his old, slow and heavy aircraft did what he usually does: flying precisely; not making any mistakes; wildly hoping the competition made a mess of things. Today he was rewarded. Muroya meanwhile, flew his best run ever. His time of 1.23.21 would have graced the Final Four.
Neither would repeat their times in the Top Twelve. Muroya slipped back two seconds but did enough to proceed, while Pete hit Gate Three and was eliminated. Those particular pylons, part of the Quadro, were problematic all day with no less than ten penalties recorded. Also eliminated with McLeod were Budapest winner Mike Goulian, local favourite Alejandro MacLean and Matt Hall. Hall, third in the championship was the surprise faller, but his ninth place was enough to ensure he retained his championship ranking.
But no-one was looking at Hall. Paul Bonhomme was the talking point. The Championship leader squeaked through in seventh position; flying clean, but by his standards very slowly. Paul doesn’t do seventh. Had the pressure got to the Briton?
The Super 8 began with Muroya, enjoying his first outing at those rarefied heights. His time of 1:24.82 was solid, if unspectacular. Crucially it was error-free, putting him in with a shot of going even further. Kirby Chambliss went next and beat him, despite a penalty at the Gate 3 Quadro. Peter Besenyei also fell foul of that gate too, but Nigel Lamb did not; the Team Breitling pilot going fastest and anticipating his first visit to the Final Four since Abu Dhabi many months ago. Matthias Dolderer went next, collected his penalty at Gate 3 – which by now was getting a bit old – and slotted in just behind Lamb. Then Bonhomme finally discovered his form, blowing everyone away without ever looking troubled. Nicolas Ivanoff got Gate 3 wrong and was out.
Then came Hannes Arch. With Bonhomme safely through, if Arch failed to beat Chamliss’s 1:24.63 the World Championship battle would end on a rather dull note. It did not look promising when Arch joined the unhappy band of Gate 3 miscreants, but somehow the reigning World Champion did enough to go through. His time of 1:24.30 kept his hopes alive by the small matter of three tenths of a second.
The Final Four would fly in the order Lamb, Dolderer, Bonhomme, Arch. All four pilots depart the airfield at the same time and only have contact with the race director – who keeps the fliers isolated from any timing information. The result is a no holds barred shoot-out. Lamb flew clean, cocky almost; an aviator quite different to the one who went through the mill in Windsor and Budapest. Dolderer in his first Final Four was out of the running almost before he began. Gate Three did it’s work again. His final time was 1:24.32, a second down on Lamb. Bonhomme came next. He wouldn’t know the earlier times but for the million-plus spectators his job was simply to go faster than Dolderer. Do that and the title was his irrespective of whatever Arch achieved.
The thing about Bonhomme flying well is that he simply looks better than anyone else in the air. His aircraft control is more precise; he appears to have more time to manoeuvre. Earlier in the day that hadn’t been evident; now it was. With Lamb’s time to beat, Bonhomme negotiated Gate 3. He was 0.33 up at the first interval; 0.54 up at the second; .93 at the third, and crossed the line 0.97 seconds clear. The title was his. Officially he didn’t know it – but he probably did.
'On my first run I think I was pretty close to just about every gate'
Arch was unaware that he was flying for the race and not the championship. He came in hard, low and fast – and then flew straight into the Gate Three pylon. Game over. He would be classified fourth. Dolderer was on the podium for the first time; Lamb had a welcome return to form – but the day, and the year, belonged to Number 55 Paul Bonhomme.
Arch was magnanimous in defeat, the first man across to congratulate his rival. “I’m happy for Paul this afternoon,” said the Austrian. “It’s been a great fight all year. I’m second in the World Championship and I don’t feel any reason to be disappointed.”
“On my first run I think I was pretty close to just about every gate,” said a champagne-drenched and newly-crowned Paul Bonhomme. “I was planning on flying a steady run in the Top 12, but not quite that steady. It’s been hilarious, with hindsight, listening to myself and Hannes over the last couple of weeks, each claiming the pressure was on the other guy. The truth is that pressure was enormous on both of us, and I’m a very, very relieved man tonight.”