Abu Dhabi's Red Bull Air Race returns for its 10th anniversary

What, why and how to watch the sport's 75th race this weekend in the UAE.

Neil Churchill February 6, 2017

The annual Red Bull Air Race in Abu Dhabi is probably the most under-appreciated sporting event of its size in the UAE.

While the Formula 1, the multiple golf and tennis events and the Dubai World Cup horserace – no longer the world’s richest – are widely known and acclaimed, the Air Race has never quite drawn the same buzz. Which is peculiar, because it’s probably the most impressive.

Known as the ‘F1 of the skies’, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship 2017 kicks off this weekend, celebrating the sport’s 10th year and its 10th consecutive season opener in the UAE capital. It’s also the diamond 75th race in the sport’s history. All in all, this weekend’s event is a big one, even by Red Bull and Abu Dhabi’s high standards. 

For the uninitiated, the race is essentially a cross between Formula 1 and rallying, but in state-of-the-art planes that have to navigate a time trial obstacle course 25 metres overhead.

The weekend will begin with 12 pilots qualifying from two sessions to get the fastest time. The 12 are then placed into six heats, with each winner and the two fastest runner-ups moving on to the next stage, called the Super 8. Each pilot who gets this far achieves points towards their world championship score.

The four fastest from the Super 8 will then move into the Final 4, where they compete for glory.

The planes

The nimble planes regularly hit speeds of 420km/h, and over a tight compact course of just five km, the pilots regularly pull 10Gs of force – that's enough to lose consciousness.

But it’s not just their speed and agility that is impressive. Much like Formula 1 cars, the Air Race planes sport a variety of liveries that add to the visual attractiveness of the sport. This year’s winner in the best looking category is unquestionably the Skyracer from the Breitling team. While the planes are at the forefront of aircraft technology, the watch brand has decided to give its aircraft a vintage and old world military look, with the fuselage and wings painted a rust colour as if it requires some serious restoration. 

The pilots

The pilots are no weekend hobbyists either. To qualify, they must be active aerobatic air display pilots and have each gone through underwater survival training – useful for Abu Dhabi's water course. Inside the tight cockpits they each have spare air and an oxygen mask, as well as a parachute.

Defending world champion and Abu Dhabi’s winner in 2016, Matthias Dolderer will be the pilot with a target on his back. Last year he was the first pilot to secure the championship before the season finale. 

Where to watch

You’d think that given this sport takes place in the air you could simply stand anywhere along the Abu Dhabi corniche, gaze towards the sky and see the race unfolding. But it’s not quite that simple.

For the best spot, we’d recommend somewhere like the Nation Riviera Beach Club, part of The St. Regis hotel, where Cabana Bar & Grill is putting on a beachfront BBQ. Alternatively, if you want to watch from the same level as the pilots operate at, the hotel’s Azura Panoramic Lounge will have unrivalled views of the course. 

For more: redbullairrace.com