The Red Bull Air Race arrives in Europe, where three races in seven weeks will decide the destination of the 2009 world championship.
Traditionally, Hungary celebrates its founding day with fireworks, but recent history has added rockets of a different kind, with the Red Bull Air Race coming to Budapest for the St Stephen’s Day festivities. It’s strange to talk of tradition with regard to a sport still in its relative infancy, but Budapest in late August has swiftly become the spiritual home of the competition – an ever-present on the calendar, watched by a crowd usually numbering well over half a million on the banks of the Danube. This year, it has the added piquancy of a neck-and-neck title fight. With Hannes Arch leading Paul Bonhomme by a single point, and with only two more races to follow, the stakes could not by higher.
Last year, Bonhomme came to Budapest with a commanding lead and heavy expectations of taking the title, but it was Arch who stepped up, taking his first victory and effectively announcing his challenge. Arch went on to take the title, consigning Bonhomme to the runner-up prize once again. This year, Arch has a slender lead, but the form favours Bonhomme, not out of the top two all season and a winner last time out in Canada. His aircraft seems to have lost its early-season sluggishness, and its pilot has an air of confidence, despite Budapest being something of a bogey race for him in the past. But Arch is a world champion and the world championship leader.
The disruptive element is Frenchman Nicolas Ivanoff. Nine points behind Arch, Ivanoff was a winner in San Diego but had a nightmare in Windsor. In years past, a pilot could afford to have a bad day, but with the shortened 2009 season, one mistake is likely to be one too many. Ivanoff concedes his title chances are slim, but he’s more than capable of winning races and playing a part in deciding the fate of the championship – and the glint in his eye when he dismisses his own chances suggests he doesn’t necessarily believe he’s out of the running just yet.
Mike Mangold, twice a winner here, might also come into contention if he’s managed to coax some more horsepower out of his aircraft. The MX-Aircraft runners, Matt Hall and Nigel Lamb, are locked in their own private battle for fourth, with the Aussie just in front at the moment – both left Canada disappointed with their returns, and both will want to do better here.
And then there’s the Godfather himself, Peter Besenyei. The local hero is a previous winner over the Danube and arrives in Budapest raring to go with a rebuilt aircraft. Besenyei spoiled his ever-present record in Windsor, after a training day crash-landing put his plane out of commission. Before that he’d been in great form, and he has the potential to cause an upset.
But leaving aside the fervent local support for Besenyei, all eyes are locked on the battle between Arch and Bonhomme. Neither is going to win the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in Budapest – but one mistake might lose it. Neither has flinched yet, but the pressure is mounting.