In this series we've spoken to three Red Bull Air Race champions about what it takes to retain the mantle of World Champion. Since the World Championship began, only one pilot has been able to clinch the title in back-to-back seasons – Great Britain's Paul Bonhomme. The sport's most successful pilot, Bonhomme claimed overall honours in 2009 and 2010 (and again in 2015), so he knows how it feels to bear the weight of expectation.
Bonhomme didn't have it all his own way. Before taking his first ever World Champion title in 2009, he'd had two seasons of finishing as the runner up – one of which was a tie-breaker, so he knows that pressure can build when you're so close. "On one hand, once you've won and got the monkey off your back, there's a certain bit of you that's super relaxed, because you think, 'You know what? I can actually do this,' and that takes away a load of stress," said Bonhomme. "Of course the bad news is you can't improve on the World Championship. That is the tricky bit. You must say to yourself, 'OK, how do I stay here?' And that requires a lot of work. You know the guys below you are going to compete even harder, so that is half the battle – realising that you have to improve. It's daunting, but if you're clever, you won't let it get to you."
As Bonhomme is the only person – so far – that has successfully retained the World Championship title, he knows that you can't stand around and soak up the glory – you have to keep moving forward, but it's never easy. "You start to think: well, if I had to do that last year, to stay ahead the guys below me are even hungrier, so they're going to compete even harder, so I have to go up a grade. If you don't, if you sit there and think, "Well, I'm a World Champion, happy days," then you're probably going to have a hard time," he explained.
It's not just about having a fast raceplane and a strong team around you. To keep focused and keep pushing you have to be headstrong as well. "The key is to get over the psychological pressure, but there are all sorts of mechanisms to get over that pressure. You can look at Free Practice, where somebody flies much faster than you. That's psychological pressure – you've got to say, "OK, somehow I have to go faster." So it is daunting, but if you're clever, you won't let it get to you. What you do is pull on the positives and say, "Actually, I've proven, along with the team, that we can win." And as long as you know that, instead of worrying about "can we?", we just have to concentrate on what's going to get us to win again," said Bonhomme.
So what worked with Bonhomme, and what would he tell the other pilots to do? "I considered myself as the World Champion until a minute to midnight on 31 December. I always said, "As of 1 January, I am no longer World Champion. I am just another pilot. And if I want to win, I have to put all the effort in that made us win last year." Whereas what I think you can't afford to do is say, "Well, I'm the World Champion, therefore I must be good and maybe it'll look after itself." That won't work," he concluded.