Japan's Yoshihide Muroya won the first round of the 2019 Red Bull Air Race World Championship by a slender 0.003 seconds on Saturday, standing on the top step of the podium for the first time since his championship season in 2017.
Muroya beat 2018 champion Martin Sonka from the Czech Republic and the USA's Michael Goulian in the Final 4 round. France's Nicolas Ivanoff had to forfeit his Final 4 run when the engine on his Edge 540 refused to start.
Australia's Matt Hall, also dogged with engine issues, finished in fifth place.
“It’s important to win to maximise the points," said a delighted Muroya, "and our flights were very consistent from Free Practice 1 to the Final 4, so we’re really happy about that. The wind had shifted 180 degrees, so it was very, very difficult to get through Gate 7 today. I think maybe everyone was struggling there.”
Muroya had qualified first on Friday, which put him into a Round of 14 match race with Ivanoff, who he beat by more than half a second. Both, however, progressed as Ivanoff became the fastest loser. The Japanese pilot took on Spaniard Juan Velarde in the Round of 8 and moved easily into the Final 4 after his opponent collected a two-second penalty.
With Ivanoff side-lined, Muroya laid down a challenging time in the first run, which was too much for Goulian. Sonka, running last, gave it everything he had, but fell an agonising 0.003 sec short of the Japanese pilot's time.
Matt Hall finished his race day in fifth place despite an over-heating cylinder that robbed the Lycoming engine of full power. Already behind the eight-ball, Team MHR put in place a back-up plan that saw the Aussie knock-out Britain's Ben Murphy in the Round of 14. That set-up a race against 2018 champion Sonka in the Round of 8. Despite Hall giving it everything, he recorded one of the slowest times of the day to that point, which Sonka eclipsed by 0.256 second despite collecting a one-second penalty for exceeding 11 g in Gate 3.
“It would have been nice to knock Martin out of the Round of 8 today, but I knew I would need to rely on him getting a penalty – which he did. But I still could not beat him,” Hall said.
“We came into today knowing that we had some issues and it was all about trying to nurse the aircraft through the day. In saying that, I was pushing as hard as I could, but the plane is just not happy at the moment."
Regardless, Hall is still taking some positives away from Abu Dhabi, a track on which he has never made the Final 4.
“This morning we had to have a discussion about ‘are we actually going to go out there today?’ So, to come in fifth was a great result considering we may have not even started. But it is also disappointing that the team worked so hard and I thought I flew the plane quite well in the Round of 8."
The Edge 540's Lycoming engine will likely head to the USA for an overhaul before the next round of the world championship.
After Round One, Muroya leads the championship on 28 points including three points for qualifying fastest, Sonka is second on 22, Goulian third with 21 and Ivanoff fourth with 18. Matt Hall sits fifth on 14 points.
Round Two of the 2019 Red Bull Air Race is in Europe at a venue yet to be decided, but is likely to be in late April or early May.