At the Abu Dhabi race in February 2017, Daniel Ryfa and Florian Bergér could often be found huddled over a computer screen, talking intently.
"We learn a lot from each other," Ryfa said.
Both Bergér and Ryfa emerged from the 2016 season at the top of the points, and in a field packed with standouts, each is the other's toughest opponent. Yet they are often together, analysing each other's training videos and sharing their discoveries. It's a true sporting friendship.
Due to both pilots wanting to win and claim a rare cockpit seat in the Master Class, you'd think Bergér and Ryfa would be fierce rivals, but they seem to have taken the spirit of the Challenger Class to heart: it's about learning first.
"I like all the Challenger pilots and generally it´s a very nice atmosphere between all of us, but with Daniel it´s a little different," noted Bergér, who joined the Challenger line up in 2015 and is also a medal-winning international aerobatic competitor and a commercial airline pilot. "Besides the coaching from the Red Bull Air Race staff, I show videos of what worked well for me to Daniel, and vice versa. Also when we have problems in the track, we help each other."
Ryfa is just as appreciative, "He's a super-honest guy, and I try to be the same to him. We don't really keep any special racing secrets from each other, so whoever finds something, they share it. And then whoever flies the best flight will win. Sometimes it's him, sometimes it's me. Also we push each other towards being faster and tighter all over the track. I think it's quite cool," he said.
Challenger pilots don't have race teams, and they don't compete in their own raceplanes. For training and competition they trade off flying a small fleet of Extra 330LX aircraft. And just like any other type of vehicle, two identical models of a raceplane each have a unique feel.
"Another good thing is that Daniel and I are flying the same raceplane most of the time because we have the same seat position," explained Bergér, who like Ryfa is tall and lean. "So we exchange a lot of our experiences with that particular plane. In this way we are acting like a team."
Ryfa, has been a member of the Challenger Class since its inception in 2014, he has been one of its most consistently successful pilots and was a relatively seasoned competitor when he met Bergér at the German's first Challenger Class race in 2015.
"Petr Kopfstein was flying with the Challengers back then, and I think he knew Flo from some aerobatics competitions. So Flo was hanging around with me and Kop, and we became very good friends," Ryfa remembers.
Ryfa and Bergér first shared a podium at the 2016 season opener in Abu Dhabi, with Ryfa winning and Bergér third. At the very next race, in Spielberg, their positions were reversed. The seesawing continued, and in the end Bergér took his first Challenger Cup season win on points, just two ahead of second-place Ryfa. Their collaboration seems to be working.
Even more significant than competition results, they both have earned the coveted Master Class Super Licence. While that still doesn't promise an eventual berth in the World Championship, it's a measure of the skill level the two friends have attained.
Just how good the two pilots have become was evident in the thrilling Challenger Class race they delivered in Abu Dhabi just weeks ago on 11 February. With only Ryfa left to fly, Bergér was the sole Challenger who had navigated the Race Day track under 1:01 minutes. Through split after split, Ryfa couldn't gain traction, and the race looked like a lock for Bergér. But the Swede kept his cool and flew hyper-efficient lines through the final turns to pull ahead and capture the win by only 0.355s. "When Daniel beats me, especially when it´s close, I´m nearly as happy for him as I would be for myself if I had beaten him," Bergér declared.
"In the end it's a race – I know he's my main competitor, and it's the same for him. So on Race Day it can be a bit tense, but not in a bad way. If he wins or I win, we're always happy for each other. It's good," added Ryfa.
Perhaps even better would be racing against one another in the Master Class someday? "My goal is of course to get in the Master Class," Bergér acknowledged. "The best would be together with Daniel. It would be so much fun."