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When the Red Bull Air Race returned in 2014 it brought with it a new a new section to the series that has changed the way athletes become Master Class pilots: The Challenger Cup.
It was a new concept to give highly experienced pilots their first taste of Air Racing in a safe and controlled environment whilst learning the skills needed to become the Red Bull Air Race World Champion.
Race Director and Head of Training, Steve Jones, along with other members of the race Committee saw the necessity of having this 'feeder' series when the World Championship returned. Steve Jones explains: "The Challenger Cup is absolutely vital for the Red Bull Air Race in terms of #people stepping up to the Master Class, but I think it could stand on it's own. Not only is it a feeder series, but it's also a great #competition. We have such a high calibre of pilot taking part."
Jones was part of the team that came up with the initial concept. Jones was an Air Race pilot from 2003-2008 and saw how it was developing into a fully-fledged motorsport. "In the early days of the Air Race we needed experienced air show pilots to cope with the strange operations, as nothing like it had been done before," says Jones. "As the sport developed it was obvious to me that we needed a more motorsport type model. We needed different formulas, where pilots arrived at the top level after working their way up and learning their trade. We needed something like a Formula 2 to create a ladder where we could feed the pilots into the Master Class or stay in a successful championship series," he adds.
If a pilot wants to progress they need to get their Master Class Super Licence, and Jones is on the panel of who gains their licence, but he doesn't have a say in who goes up into the Master Class. "From my perspective, I'm not interested if they've won or finished last. I look at their flight operations and the safety aspect. I would move up a lot of Challengers if I had the say-so, because I think a lot of them are very good. Equally, the Master Class only has a limited number of spaces and disappointingly there are some that can't move up yet, but will make good Masters." Jones says.
The Challenger Class is clearly working; six pilots have already made the transition and becoming serious competitors in the Master Class. "I was watching Petr Kopfstein very closely in Abu Dhabi and he is one of the best flyers right now. He even out Bonhomme-ed Bonhomme, he was very smooth, yet aggressive where he needed to be and the guy is super fit, he handles the G like water off a duck's back. Cristian [Bolton] is yet to get the full potential out of his team and plane, but is flying beautifully," says Jones.
As the Head of Training Jones, along with former race pilots Klaus Schrodt and Sergey Rakhmanin, keep a close eye on the Challenger Class pilots, and help them out where needed. "Klaus, Sergey and I all have an input. All of us are on the end of a phone, so if we see something we like, or don't like we call them, once they've landed and then at the end of the day we brief them as a group. None of us are interested in if they win or lose, so we don't give them any race tips. We're there to make sure they're developing in the correct way and that they're safe. I'm very aware that we don't need to help develop their #racing skills because they're all very good. Klaus and I were very proud of them all and how they flew in Abu Dhabi," concludes Jones.
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