How To Become The Red Bull Air Race World Champion

By GQ Middle East
07 February 2019
Red Bull Air Race
Red Bull Air Race
The Red Bull Air Race World Championship begins today in Abu Dhabi – and ends in Saudi Arabia in November. World Champion Martin Šonka explains what it takes to win the world’s most insane air race

You flew with the Czech Military, how far removed is that from aerobatics in the Red Bull Air Race?
I don’t think you can really compare them. They’re completely different worlds and both are beautiful. You have a lot of computers in a jet fighter, every single move with the stick is controlled by the technology. In air racing the plane responds to everything you do with the stick, there are no computers. You act – the plane does. Gs are also higher but for a shorter time, in a jet fighter you have lower Gs but for longer periods and the pressure suits help you with resistance. There are so many differences… I have to say I really love both types of flying.

So, when did life with Red Bull begin?
As soon as I saw the Red Bull Air Race I knew it was an event I wanted to be part of. I had won three European Freestyle Aerobatic Championships, as well as flying supersonic jets and display team aircraft in the Czech Air Force. Then, during World Championships in aerobatics in 2009, I received an offer to participate in the Red Bull training camp. By the end I was one of the two pilots chosen to fly in the World Series. My dream had come true.

Martin Sonka - Red Bull Air Race

How easy is it to train for a race?
It’s impossible to fly the race track except during the official training sessions over the race weekend. So, we spend hours on simulators flying virtually. You can train well by flying aerobatics too, you can do some fitness to help to have body prepared and of course mental refreshment and rest is crucial too. During the race weekend we expend a lot of energy so relaxation is must.

What’s you’re pre-flight prep like?
You have to know what kind of trajectory you want to fly in the race track, so I talk to my team regarding tactics and what could be the best or fastest option, then you have to memorize the track. I also have to warm up my body before each flight to be ready for high Gs. It’s crucial to set up the plane properly and then you can go ahead and fly. During the flight it’s not possible to do anything else other than focus on that flight. Everything needs to be done beforehand.

It looks crazy up there, any time when you felt in trouble?
My race planes are not good gliders when the engine is not running. Last year I experienced that first hand when one of my cylinders exploded and broke during an aerobatic training flight. Oil started blowing on my canopy and I could hardly see. Thankfully it all ended well with a safe emergency landing. It’s always good to analyse why it happened and simply remain focused and prepared for anything up there.

So, all things considered… what does it take to become the champ?
It’s a mixture of things. In the beginning I thought that I would be able to instantly compete, but my plane didn’t have the same power as some of the others. I took that time to become a lot more experienced which certainly helped me in the future. To win the championship is like a puzzle you need to put together over the season. Experience is crucial, you need to have a fast race plane, a strong and experienced team, and you need focus and self-confidence. You also need a solid financial background because the development of the race plane is incredibly expensive. Finally, you probably need a little luck too. If you manage to put all these things together, then you can think about to winning the World Championship.

Red Bull Air Race, February 8-9, Abu Dhabi, airrace.redbull.com