Every track in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has its unique characteristics. At Ascot the pilots take-off on the grass in front of the crowd, in Budapest they fly under the Chain Bridge, and in Chiba it's a one lap circuit over open water.
The one lap circuit looks straight forward, but looks can be deceptive. Former Red Bull Air Race pilot and current Race Director, Steve Jones, gives us the low down on the circuit over Tokyo Bay.
Jones thinks the first thing that could make a difference to each pilot's run is the weather. "The wind can change quickly and be very strong. Strong wind also causes waves, which move the barges that the Air Gates are built on. This causes the pylons to move noticeably. So, in strong wind, not only does the pilot have to fly in moving air but will have to also contend with moving pylons!" Jones explains.
The pilots of the Red Bull Air Race are very experienced and know how the weather will affect their raceplane and flying, but what gates do they need to watch out for? Jones believes they need to be on the right path before they've even entered the track. "The approach angle into the Start Gate will have to be offset to give a super-smooth turn around Gate 2, the single pylon. This is important so the aircraft keeps as much speed as possible. Rough handling causes drag and speed loss – it has to be smooth and accurate all the way to Gate 4," says Jones.
Then it's into the first high G turn, the first point on the track where the race could be won or lost. "Gate 4 must be flown as a vertical turning manoeuvre in order that the pilots do not cross the safety line. This is going to be a critical area," says Jones. "The pilots are likely to still have 200kts when they arrive at Gate 4. This will require very careful management of their G in the turn. It will be extremely easy to pull too much and get DNF (Did Not Finish) – but if they don't pull to the maximum, they will get a poor time. It's a difficult and critical turn," he adds.
The high G turn at the other end of the circuit – Gate 8 to 9 – is likely to be flown flat. By this point the pilot will probably have a little less airspeed, but the turn is still critical and there is a safety line to the left of Gate 8 and right of Gate 9 so the pilots will have to take care not to cross it or it will be a DQ (Disqualification)!
The uniqueness of the Chiba track means the pilots will fly through the chicane in both directions, which Jones thinks is 'great' but does come with another issue that the pilots will have to contend with. "If there is a strong wind blowing along the Chicane the pilots will have to remember that they will fly through it much quicker in one direction and slower in the other, they will have to work out the 'tempo' and adjust their flying accordingly," says Jones. "Basically the biggest critical areas are the big, high G turns at each end. Plus, how beautifully smoothly the pilot flies the rest of the Track, to conserve aircraft speed," he concludes.