Ivanoff wins wild season opener in Abu Dhabi

The season kickoff of the 2016 Red Bull Air Race World Championship turned expectations upside-down

Dolderer, Ivanoff and Le Vot on the Abu Dhabi podium

The first race of the 2016 Red Bull Air Race World Championship was even hotter than expected in sizzling Abu Dhabi on Saturday, as France's Nicolas Ivanoff blazed through the pylons to victory in a close and frequently astonishing competition.

Claiming the early lead in what's setting up to be an especially fierce title battle, Ivanoff's time of 58.550 was barely a tenth of a second faster than Matthias Dolderer of Germany in second place (58.660). François Le Vot of France, who is beginning only his second season and was ranked 14th in 2015, captured his first career podium with 1:02.281 for third place.

With the retirement of 2015 World Champion Paul Bonhomme, the 2016 title for the world's ultimate motorsport series in the sky is anyone's to seize, and the heat was on. The day was packed with shocks: Matt Hall of Australia, who was ranked number one after finishing second overall last year, hit a pylon and failed to advance beyond the opening round for only the third time in his career. Another top favorite, 2008 World Champion Hannes Arch, gave fans a similar surprise after flying brilliantly through the early rounds only to earn a disqualification in the Final 4 for passing the Safety Line. Arch finishes the race in Abu Dhabi without any points, due to his DQ result.

The season-opening victory makes Ivanoff the early leader in the points as the campaign for the World Championship begins across seven more races in six countries. "I propose we end the season right now," joked the Team Hamilton pilot. "Actually, we worked really hard for this in training and I was not stressed coming into the race – but I knew we had to be really careful. I'm very happy for my team and my fans."

Tickets for all stops of the 2016 Red Bull Air Race World Championship – including the next race in Spielberg, Austria on 23-24 April – are on sale now.