The first Red Bull Air Race ever to be held in Russia proved to be one of the best in the sport's history. But what made it even more special was the fact that it was a double header for the Challenger Class with a race being held on both the Saturday and Sunday of race week.
The conditions were so different from the Saturday and Sunday so it took the pilots of the Challenger Class' concentration levels to the maximum. The two pilots to come out on top were Luke Czepiela in Saturday's rescheduled Chiba race, and new pilot, Kenny Chiang, who won on Sunday.
Eight pilots were competing in Saturday's race and it was close! Luke Czepiela won by just 0.099s. Beating race favourite, Daniel Ryfa into second place. Czepiela's win wasn't too much of a surprise to the Polish pilot, he'd already picked up a third and second place finish so far this season. "It always feels great to be on top of the podium," he said after his win. "It was my third podium of the season from third second to first. It was a great race and a lovely difficult track."
Czepiela knows how tough it is in the Challenger Class, he's been involved in all but one season in the series. "There are nine pilots this year, we all want to get into the Master Class and it's a tough competition, the podium has swapped over quite a lot. There are a lot of good guys and it's unpredictable," he said. "I'm making steady progress this season, and hopefully I'll maintain that trend. The win in Kazan has given me a lot of confidence. I feel like I've grown up a bit in the track. I used to be very aggressive and I collected a lot of penalties. Now I've been able to reduce the pylon hits and the penalties. I have my own aircraft at home now that helps a lot with the training, so I feel I can put a big fight to the other guys. I was waiting for this first win of the season and I'll be going to my next race a much better pilot," he added.
The other pilot to come out on top was Kenny Chiang who won Sunday's race. It was only his fourth race in the Challenger Class and he also had the unenviable job of flying first. It seemed as if the conditions deteriorated for the Challenges. Times got slower as the pilots flew their run in the track. Chiang also agreed with Czepiela about how tough the series is this year. "It's really tight in the Challenger Class. We all fly the same plane there's very little manoeuvring we can do," he said.
Even though it's only his first season Chiang isn't here just to make up the numbers, he wants to win and is putting himself under pressure. "I was first out on the track on Race Day, which adds pressure. I put more pressure on myself after my performance in the first race of the weekend where I hit a pylon and didn't set the engine up correctly so the pressure was immense," Chiang explained.
Chiang is one of three new pilots to join the series this season and although he has worked hard, he wasn't expecting to win so soon in his career. "It feels incredible, unbelievable. I'm still surprised and really happy. Congratulations to Baptiste [Vignes, who finished second] too – it's really special to see two new Challengers on the podium. In this game experience really counts, and maybe I got a little lucky. I'm just trying to get better and better in the plane. It's still not the perfect lap and I will continue to work on it, but I do think it gives me more momentum," he explained.
Like all the competitors in the Challenger Class, Chiang has one goal. "Just to get into the Red Bull Air Race is a dream come true and a mission I've been trying for the last 10 years. It's taken a while, but to be here I'm already so happy. It's such a difficult sport and I'm still learning, but the dream is to be in the Master Class. I'm taking it step-by-step but I'm happy with the progression so far," he concluded.