The Red Bull Air Race World Championship returns to Porto this weekend for the first time in eight years. The costal city in Portugal has hosted the race three times before, in 2007, '08 and '09. In the first year Steve Jones took the win and in 2009 Paul Bonhomme won on the way to taking his title. Their wins were spilt by Hannes Arch, who won in 2008.
Bonhomme and Jones are back in Porto, this time as commentator on the live broadcast and Race Director. The pair both have fond memories of when they were racing above the Douro River.
"I liked the track in Porto – there were a lot of complaints about it being too simple, but I liked it because it was an absolutely fantastic venue. You're right down below most of the city, which makes it special," says Jones.
"It's a great location," agrees Bonhomme. "It's so beautiful and the fact that the river channels you into the city and you swarm around there like an angry bee for a minute and then head back out to the ocean, makes it quite bizarre.
"Obviously I have mixed history here. '07 was OK. I was third. 2008 I had a big over-G which gave me a DQ and then I won here in 2009 which was much better! And interestingly that went on to win me the World Championship, which Hannes did the year before. In 2008 that over-G and DQ did the damage that cost me the title. Up until that point, Hannes and I were both in the title race," says Bonhomme, the three-time World Champion.
Both Jones and Bonhomme say the track has unique aspects that make it a special location for the Red Bull Air Race. When it came to winning they had differing tactics. "The first year we were there, you've never seen so many people in one place. It was absolutely crammed with spectators. Hopefully we'll have a re-enactment of that. The track has to be simple due to the Douro being narrow, it has to be on the centre line of the river. So it has a few gentle turns and then the three vertical turns at the end. I enjoyed it and my raceplane was set up to be very fast in a straight line. Generally the plane wasn't very good in the corners, but good in the straight line. All I had to do was get three very good vertical turns, and that's what I managed to do," remembers Jones about his win in 2007.
"This is a track where you have to fly smoothly. There is no decision making on turning points, like for example, in Kazan the guys taking the big risk at Gates 3 and 4 were going to get a quick time," says Bonhomme. "There isn't that scenario here. The only way you can go faster is by not moving the controls and altering the airflow. That was my tactic in '09 – just don't move the controls. There is one video of me flying through the chicane, and it's interesting because it looks wide, but it wasn't, and the key is to just be really smooth here," he adds.
When asked how he thinks the pilots will do in Porto, Jones explains the tactics they will have to use if they want to do well. "We'll see most pilots flying the same line – because it's the only line to fly quickly and legally. The variables are the weather. It's a costal city that looks straight out over the Atlantic and you know any weather can come in, which could throw a few curve balls to the pilots. You mustn't lose too much energy in the VTMs, so it's going to be a balancing act and a compromise. The guys that have a lot of winglet options will be spending a lot of time looking at their data, trying to work out what the best compromise is."
Bonhomme is excited about how close the 2017 season is turning out. "There are four pilots who have a great chance of winning the championship, six pilots who have a chance and even eight or nine that could win it – which is something we've not seen before. Here it's a discipline track. It's the guys with the fast aeroplanes that will do well, if they're disciplined with the pull up gates and keep it smooth in the track. The three VTMs are key, one mistake there – whether it be a stall or an over-G – is going to ruin your run," he concludes.
You can see for yourself how all the pilots fare when they enter the racetrack over the Douro on 02-03 September. Follow all the action HERE.