In 2008, the Red Bull Air Race grew into a serious sport with aerodynamic modifications galore made with the most notable being Hannes Arch's new canopy at Rotterdam last year. To add to that, Paul Bonhomme was disqualified in Porto for pulling more G forces on his plane than what was required which brought safety into the spotlight as well.
Indeed, the sport has matured and as part of the natural evolution in trying to win, the issue of aircraft weight has come to light.
2009 was the first time that all aircraft in the Red Bull Air Race had been weighed. For the most part, there have been no surprises here with logic dictating that the fastest plane is also the lightest.
One notable exception to this was Paul Bonhomme, who not only is the heaviest pilot, but has the heaviest plane as well. He did however invest a lot into aerodynamics which made him a front-runner the previous year.
One pilot who has had issues dealing with new aircraft and new technologies is Nigel Lamb of the Breitling team. In the second race of the year in San Diego in 2008, Lamb acquired some new technology in the form of the MXS—an aircraft that hopefully would propel him to podiums, wins, and the championship.
Unfortunately, nothing with so many moving parts comes perfect when you bring it out of the box, and the MXS was no exception to that rule.
For Lamb and team Breitling, the 2008 season was spent modifying the aircraft and the moment of truth came at the season finale in Perth when Lamb took a career-best second place. This was certainly motivation to continue working on the aircraft and making the MXS competitive at every race for 2009.
"We totally stripped and re-built the plane" says Lamb in an e-mail. "We simply weighed all the components and replaced whatever we could with lighter components and removed anything and everything that was not necessary for racing or safety."
Many pilots are taking the same approach to make their aircraft lighter and nimbler to get the fastest time possible. This results in closer sector times and as a result, has created a slight rule change in how penalties are administered—six seconds (as opposed to 10 last year) when touching a gate (TAG) and two seconds (as opposed to three) when flying too high (FTH) or an incorrect knife flying (IKF).
"What makes it more important this year is that the performance of the planes is closer so all teams are obsessed by getting rid of any unnecessary grams" and logically, the planes get faster and will go through the track much quicker than before. This means that team engineers and mechanics are trying to find ways to bring down the weight of the aircraft to the minimum allowable weight of 1,190 pounds (541 kg).
Some components cannot be taken out altogether, so looking for lighter alternatives is one way to go in order to sacrifice weight and optimize performance.
There is however one necessary part of the aircraft that cannot be replaced, and that is the pilot himself.
The pilot is the single heaviest component of a racing plane and is also the most irreplaceable!
They do partake in various fitness regimes to make themselves more tolerant of the high G-forces put against their bodies and also to make themselves lighter "because you want the engine pulling the least amount of weight around the track" as Lamb puts it. By "least amount of weight," Lamb meant the components of his MXS, the pilot, and all his equipment, which can add significantly more weight, but is necessary in order to ensure safety.
The issue of weight in the Red Bull Air Race is a pretty straight-forward notion. Basically, the lighter you and your plane are, the better a time you will put on the board. Still, with that notion, there is also a lot of in-between issues that complicate the matter such as the Centre of Gravity limits (CG).
There is a CG limit in the fore (front) and in the aft (back) of airplanes. "If you try to fly with the CG outside the limits you can have problems controlling the machine so it's imperative to be inside the envelope," says Lamb.
As the weight aircraft decreases, the CG limits change. When talking about how he and the Breitling team managed to work that issue on the MXS, Lamb remarks "as weight was reduced, we did track the CG movement...A change in the CG changes the feel of the plane in the pitching axis. Once you have the CG right, you want to keep it constant so the plane feels the same each time you are in the track."
Overall, Team Breitling has been through a lot in order to become competitive, but reaching for the top—and staying there—is a job that never ends.
When asked how he evaluates his MXS right now in terms of weight, Lamb says, "thanks to the hard work of our engineer 'Hux' (Nigel Huxtable), the Breitling MXS is at the perfect weight. What we are focused on now are other aspects like more power and less drag (aerodynamics)".
Testing of the new components will begin at the end of this week for Team Breitling as they prepare for the most prestigious event on the Red Bull Air Race calendar—Budapest—on the 19th and 20th of August.
Special thanks to Becci Allan, Nigel Lamb, and all of Team Breitling for talking to Bleacher Report.