Red Bull snubs its flagship Ascot and Spielberg venues in favour of two more over-water tracks in Russia and Portugal.

In its fourth year after returning from a lengthy hiatus due to safety concerns, the Red Bull Air Race 2017 season retains its 8-stage, 2-tier format and begin in Abu Dhabi in February.

Notably missing from the 2017 calendar though, are the previous mainstay venues of Ascot, UK and Red Bull’s home ground at their eponymous track in Spielberg, Austria. These two locations have featured every year of the Air Race’s modern (post-2014) format, with the UK having also hosted the race at various locations each season between 2004 and 2008 while Red Bull found their feet with the format.

So why have the company home in Austria, and Ascot – once described by Red Bull themselves as their “Flagship Venue” – suddenly been cut from the running order?

The company are staying tight-lipped on the subject, but an analysis of the Air Race’s development so far might provide some clues. I’ll start by looking at the big differences between the new and old.

In and Out

Mike Goulian take a short cut

The big difference between the old tracks and the new is the environment. Courses at Porto and Kazan are over-water with remote airfields, while both the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg and Ascot are both overland courses, pilots operating their aircraft from an airfield at the site.

Red Bull have always made a big deal about the technology that goes into their ‘air gates’; the delicate, inflatable pylons that race pilots must navigate around. While hitting one of these is no small beer in an aircraft as light as a race-plane, it’s never caused an accident.

Air Race organisers are always at great pains to point out the material science that goes into a design that allows their pylons to readily tear on contact with a propeller or aircraft structure. Clearly circuits like Ascot at Spielberg offer a good deal more obstacles for pilots to avoid that don’t share these diaphanous properties. Like trees for example. The amount of orange tape draped in any greenery with significant vertical extent at Ascot is testament to how seriously organisers take the probability of a coming-together with the shrubbery.

Adilson Kindelmann’s dramatic water entry in 2010

Have they finally decided that the risk isn’t worth bearing? Well, unlikely. Two of the remaining circuits (Indianapolis and Lausitz) are over land and the only accident that has brought down a race plane so far (and resulted in the four-year gap) was Adilson Kindlemann’s ditching in Australia in 2010 after Matt Hall nearly led the way in Ontario in the same season, the Aussie just ‘dipping a toe’ into the frigid Canadian waters before staggering back into the air.

Overland courses bring the audience closer to the action, and most come with the infrastructure and facilities necessary to control entry, not to mention the high-end seating and hospitality infrastructure to up-sell to wealthier onlookers. They also tend to be natural amphitheatres. Where the aircraft operate on-site, the hangars are a terrific draw and tours add to the value proposition of the more expensive tickets.

So Red Bull may have decided that 2016’s five overland venues was too much cumulative risk to stomach, but given all of the above factors, its likely there is more at play.

Money

The modern format has seen a shift in venues away from European nations with a strong sport aviation culture, to wealthier nations with their own nationals in the competition. Malaysia and Poland gave way in 2015 to Japan and Hungary, and in 2016 Croatia followed suit to make room for Germany. It stands to reason that as the Air Race becomes more profitable and more credible as an international motorsport brand, countries wishing to be seen as sporting front-runners will be prepared to pay more for the privilege of hosting a race, while Red Bull will have a greater capacity to demand more as their brand strengthens.

Ascot is a natural amphitheatre, with its own runway.

Another possibility is that race venues have been shuffled to allow organisers to reduce the overheads involved in the logistics of moving their infrastructure all over the world.

The 2014-15 seasons were critical as Red Bull sought to reestablish the Air Race and make it profitable. The 2014 season resembled a global game of hopscotch as it skipped from an opener in the UAE to the Far East via Europe, then to the USA (via Europe again), before finishing up in Europe again.

After the travel expense bills came in, 2015 looked far more logical with a progression from the opener in the Middle East (for the winter good weather), to Japan and then the USA via Europe.

So are the latest changes a cost-saving measure? Well, not  likely. After 2015 the Air Race went back to globetrotting and the 2017 calendar features the USA twice, either side of a European stage.

So… it’s not about money?

It’s more than likely still about money. Red Bull is a profit-making enterprise and the Air Race needs to keep growing. Red Bull has a business to run, and they’re now likely in a position to dictate the terms; with venues coming to them bidding to host, rather than vice-versa. Abu Dhabi is eager to be seen as a front runner in the aerospace biz and literally has money to burn to which end Red Bull will be happy to oblige. Russia has always seen sport as a means of conducting diplomacy, and since the Olympics in 2014 the Black Sea resort of Sochi has hosted the Formula 1 circus every year. While there is plenty of money IN Russia, not an awful lot of it is in the hands of the state, however it does offer the benefit of opening up an entirely new audience for Red Bull, and this is likely more important to them than cash up front.

While a once-only fee to attract the sort of media attention that the Air Race brings with it is one thing, the opportunity to sell entertainment rights in a country like Russia is quite another. As for Austria, given that Red Bull own the venue and it costs them money to host the event, moving that stage to anywhere else in Europe prepared to pay for the privilege simply makes good business sense.

Patronage

Paul Bonhomme cheerfully waves goodbye to the Air Race. Two years later so did the rest of the UK.

As far as audiences go, the USA is a sure thing, with a huge base that is already sold on aviation. The UK has to work harder, especially since the retirement of Paul Bonhomme and Nigel Lamb has left us without a horse in the race, save for Challenger pilot Ben Murphy.

Both of the British former champions have been terrific advocates of retaining the sport in the UK, in particular Paul Bonhomme who has been involved from the start. The question is, who are we now expecting to do the work to attract Red Bull to the UK? This country doesn’t have a history of regarding aviation as ‘serious’ sport, so we are left with…who? The CAA? I hear giggling at the back but the same might be said of the LAA, BMAA, BAeA, the BGA and all the rest.

“But wait” I hear you cry, what does the BGA have to do with a powered aircraft competition? “Isn’t that the Royal Aero Club’s responsibility?” Maybe, but with the best intentions, I can’t envisage them taking part in the hard-nosed negotiation necessary to secure a rapidly growing event like the Air Race, delivered by a brand as powerful as Red Bull.

And that’s kind of the point, it gets left to ‘someone else’; the Red Bull Air Race doesn’t fit nicely into the purview of any of the British aviation associations and so it gets left for the organiser to liaise directly with both the venue and the CAA. I think we can all sympathise.

I’ve talked and talked before about why I think the Air Race is a good thing for the UK, but the competition is becoming just as hot to host the race it as it is on the track. And that’s a competition that we’re only going to win if the UK aviation community gets behind it… together. We need to take collective ownership of it and create a buzz around the Air Race so that the UK is a natural choice for 2018.

A glider draws the crowd at Ascot 2014

It’s popular in the aviation community to talk about how to inspire the next generation. In my view there isn’t a better vehicle for that than the Air Race; it brings in crowds of people who are there to see the spectacle but who know little about flying itself. I know for a fact that there are new flying club members out there because of what they saw at the last three Air Races. This year we will lose that recruiting potential to a country that barely allows its citizens to have an opinion, never mind an aeroplane.

There’s an apocryphal story about JFK’s visit to NASA during the Apollo program. When he asked a caretaker what his job was, the man replied “Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

Without the Air Race in the UK, the job of keeping General Aviation alive in the UK is made harder. We all have a role to play in bringing it back.