Last week Australian Red Bull pilot Matt Hall stated openly that his aim for the rest of the 2019 season was to win both remaining races. Yesterday he completed stage one of that ambition with a win over Lake Balaton in Hungary.
Hall beat Briton Ben Murphy, Canada's Pete McLeod and Czech Martin Sonka in a final where the Australian was the only pilot to make a clean run in the Final Four.
The result elevates him to second place in the championship behind new series leader Sonka, but the gap is a mere five points with one race to go. With only Chiba, Japan, left in the shortened series, Hall knows exactly what he and his team need to do to take the title.
"It's a bit of a stress relief when we'd been telling everyone all week that we were going to win it to actually pull it off," Hall said, "but we've got to come out fighting with one race to go. We've got to make sure we're winning races if we want to finish the year as world champion.
"You can say everything you want, but it comes down to execution on the day and the whole team pulled together and it was flawless execution by the entire team to pull off first place."
Hall had a nightmare qualifying on Saturday, collecting almost the full gamut of penalties for a pylon hit, Over-G and exceeding the track limits. The 5 seconds added to his time left him in a modest sixth, a position that put him head-to-head with series leader Japan's Yoshi Muroya in the Round of 14, meaning one of the main title contenders was going to be eliminated. It was the Japanese pilot who faltered, booking Hall a rendezvous with Chilean pilot Christian Bolton in the Round of 8.
Hall dispatched Bolton to set up the Final 4 and a chance for his seventh career win.
Both Murphy and McLeod collected penalties in their Final 4 dash for glory, guaranteeing Hall a second-place finish at best if he could make a clean run. Hall avoided any penalties and laid down the fastest time for the day, throwing down a heavy gauntlet for Sonka.
Inexplicably, Sonka struck a pylon in the relatively benign Gate 4 in his run, earning him a 3-second penalty that relegated him to fourth place and sending Hall to the top step of the podium.
“My wins have always come in groups and I haven’t had one for over a year now," Hall reflected. "Sometimes it feels like you’re winning and sometimes you’re not. It’s good to walk out of the championship at least a race winner this year, it’s a good feeling to win and prove we can do it against really solid competition."
Ben Murphy's second place was his first in what will be a relatively short Red Bull Air Race career, making him the fourth British pilot to score an RBAR podium after race legends Steve Jones, Paul Bonhomme and Nigel Lamb.
The 25 points Hall collected for the win pushed him to 61 points from the three races, leapfrogging Muroya and putting him into striking distance of Sonka, who's 18-point haul took him to 66 points. Muroya scored only 2 points for his 12th-place classification, leaving him 10 points adrift of the leader in third.
“This will now be my fifth fight for the world championship title, and I know what that’s like. To tell you the truth, I’m not really looking forward to the two weeks leading into Chiba because it’s always stressful and a lot of pacing. But the race day itself is super exciting, so the reward is there, I just gotta go get it.”
Hall has finished second in the championship three times and third once, but has never been able to lift the championship trophy despite having collected more points than any other pilot since 2014.
The battle will go down to the final ever Red Bull Air Race round in Chiba, Japan, on 7-8 September.