After four races of the 2016 season Matthias Dolderer was leading the World Championship standings by a clear 15.25 points, but the top seven pilots were only separated by 22.5 points, it was getting tense in the hangars as the pilots arrived in the UK and prepared to race at Ascot.
The more experienced pilots of the Master Class had an advantage in the UK, this was the third time they would have raced in Ascot and the track hadn't changed in that time.
If Dolderer was under any pressure he certainly wasn't showing it at Ascot and started the Free Practice sessions in fine form. His time in Free Practice 1 was 1:05.038. Matt Hall, who seemed to be getting his season back on track, was 1.461s behind the German pilot in second. Hannes Arch, who was the pilot hunting down Dolderer, had never had much luck at Ascot in the past and found himself down in sixth, more than three seconds off the pace.
Arch's problems continued into Free Practice 2 where in one of his runs he collected five seconds worth of penalties. His clean run still was only good enough to place him in 10th.
Yoshihide Muroya topped the timesheet in the second session. He had finished on the podium at Ascot in 2015 and would be looking to repeat his success, especially after winning in Chiba. Michael Goulian was close behind and Dolderer was in third.
Juan Velarde was looking strong after finishing third and fourth in the first two sessions. Hall was in fifth on the time sheet, but only half a second away from the top spot. Qualifying was going to be interesting...
Ascot 2016 in pictures
Qualifying day began with the final practice session and it created some interesting results. Pete McLeod was quickest in Free Practice 3 with Nicolas Ivanoff in second. Juan Velarde was third again and growing in confidence. He was ready for Race Day.
The big surprise was Matthias Dolderer who exceeded the G-limit and was given a DNF in the session. His mental preparation techniques would be needed if he were to put this behind him for Qualifying later in the day. If there were any ill effects from Free Practice they didn't show when Dolderer crossed the Finish Gate in the quickest time of the weekend at that point to top Qualifying. His time of 1:05.038 was the time to beat. Martin Sonka came closest, just 0.134s behind the German. Title rivals Hannes Arch and Matt Hall found themselves in seventh and eighth – it was to make for some interesting parings in the Round of 14.
In the first heat Michael Goulian was to race against Pete McLeod, the pair had been putting in very similar times throughout race week. McLeod won the heat by 0.403s, but was later Disqualified for a technical infringement. It was found that his raceplane had exceeded the RPM limit on the engine – Petr Kopfstein was to suffer the same fate in the Round of 14.
This was to be Nigel Lamb's final Red Bull Air Race in front of his home fans, so he was looking to impress. He was up against Juan Velarde in the Round of 14. Velarde had been performing well in all the previous sessions, but once again the pressure of Race Day got to the Spaniard and he collected a two second penalty for incorrect flying level through an Air Gate. This was enough to see Lamb through to the Round of 8.
Arch and Hall were to face each other in the Round of 14 – meaning Dolderer could see one of his title rivals out in the first round. Hall flew first and posted a time of 1:04.717 for Arch to beat. The Austrian was unable to and finished more than a second behind Hall, but he was still fast enough to go through as the fastest loser.
Championship leader Dolderer was up against Francois Let Vot in the final heat of the Round of 14, he posted the quickest time of the round, a blistering 1:03.715. A time that Le Vot was unable to get near and Dolderer was through to the Round of 8 once again.
Hall was to face Ivanoff in the Round of 8. Hall was back to his best and finished his run in 1:04.728. Ivanoff was close but unable to beat the Australian's time.
Michael Goulian was up against Muroya and went through after Muroya clipped a pylon at Gate 6, putting an end to his racing day. It was Goulian's first time into the Final 4 in 2016.
Local hero Nigel Lamb was up against Hannes Arch. Arch flew 1:04.818 for Lamb to beat. The Brit flew perfectly but couldn't undercut Arch's time and missed out on his home race Final 4 by just 0.212s.
Dolderer found himself up against Sonka in his heat and once again posted the quickest time of the round. His time of 1:03.266 was too much for Sonka and Dolderer was through to the Final 4.
Hall was first to fly in the Final 4 and set a time of 1:03.426. This was the time to beat if the others wanted to win. Goulian was up next and knew he was going to have to fly hard if he wanted to get near Hall's time. In his attempt to beat Hall he exceeded the G-limit and was handed a DNF.
Arch was to fly third and early indications were that he was close to Hall's time, but he aimed for the wrong gate and was also given a DNF for course deviation. That meant that Dolderer was guaranteed second place if he flew a valid run. The German pilot flew cleanly but was unable to catch Hall, giving the Australian his first win of the year.
After a disappointing start to the season Hall was firing on all cylinders – and his hunt for the World Championship title was back on.