Arch rival

City Times brings you exclusive live coverage of this year’s Red Bull Air Race in Budapest, Hungary. First up is an interview with reigning champion Hannes Arch

By Adam Zacharias

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Published: Thu 20 Aug 2009, 3:29 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:11 PM

REPRESENTING TEAM ABU Dhabi, Hannes Arch is the current Red Bull Air Race champion and sits in first place on the leaderboard for this year’s contest.

The 41-year-old is in Budapest at the moment, preparing for the fourth round of six and just one point ahead of his nearest rival. The 15-man tournament, in which competitors navigate high-speed lightweight aircraft around an aerial track, began in Abu Dhabi in April. It will conclude in Barcelona this October.

Hailing from Salzburg in Austria, Hannes has been involved in extreme sports for more than two decades. After skiing competitively in his early teens, he moved onto hang-gliding, then onto mountain climbing and base jumping. A professional helicopter pilot, Hannes was the Red Bull Air Race’s aviation manager and race director in 2005 before switching over to compete – jumping from a 10th-place finish in his first season (2007) to winning it in his second.

His aircraft, the Edge 540, boasts speeds of up to 426km/h and a G-force of up to +12. Hannes’ sponsorship is one of many initiatives by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), which also has teams competing in the UIM F1 Powerboat World Championship, the Middle East Rally Championship and the FIA World Rally Championship.

City Times visited an airfield outside Budapest to meet Hannes, prior to today’s event on the Danube river.

You currently sit on top of this year’s leaderboard, but are you fully satisfied with your performance so far?

Well I’m happy because I’m still in the lead and my aeroplane really works well. On the other hand, I’m a little bit annoyed because it could have been better. I won the first race in Abu Dhabi, but in the second race I had a bird strike, and the third round I got annoyed because there was a really hard call from the judges – I got a two-second penalty, which put me in second place. I could be much farther ahead, which would have made me much calmer and more easy-going. But it is what it is, it averages out at the end of the year.

Can you elaborate on the ‘bird strike’ incident in San Diego?

My plane was hit by a pelican – it was bad luck but I still got third place. Then again, it was good luck because I didn’t die. The bird nearly ripped the tail of my plane off, which I didn’t realise. It was really close, the closest I’ve come to an accident since I started racing.

In Formula One, it’s often said that the vehicle is of far more importance than the person racing it. How true is this in the Red Bull Air Race?

I think a third of it is down to the aircraft, a third to the driver and a third to the team. And you need experience – you can have a fast aircraft but you may have trouble realising its potential. But if your aeroplane isn’t fast, you don’t have a chance of winning.

How did you join forces with Team Abu Dhabi?

It’s a long history; because I was a race director at one of the first air races, I had really good contacts. We established a very trusting relationship and I got a feel for the people and the city. The ADTA is the ideal sponsor for me – it helps me and it helps my team. It’s not just a reputation thing, we can actually work together to improve. It has been a privilege.

And how long have you had ties with Red Bull?

I’ve been in contact with Red Bull for 20 years, since it was a really tiny company in Salzburg with just three or four people. My friend gave me their address to apply for sponsorship when I was mountaineering. We kind of grew up together, Red Bull is like a family to me – they made a lot of things happen in my life and guided me through.

Where did your need for speed originate?

I don’t think of it as a need for speed; I think there’s a need for excitement, a need to live intensely, a need for adventure and a need for the next step. It comes because I’m very honest with myself. I grew up very grounded, with a good connection to nature and to life itself. It’s just my personality, I go with the flow and whatever comes in the future is all good. Maybe I’ll be on a beach in Hawaii doing nothing!

How did you get into this specialist field of air racing?

I fought for it; I had to because I was a no-name. I first had to train for a year, then I became European champion in freestyle aerobatics in 2006. That was more or less the key to entering the Red Bull Air Race.

Do you see any stars of the future in this year’s competition?

Sure, if you look at Pete McLeod he’s 25 years old, and some of the other rookies are a bit younger than me. And sure, time is running for the older guys in their 50s, but what they have is experience, which you need lots of because this is air racing, not car driving. You can’t just risk everything, you need to go step-by-step in a very respectful way towards your life. My advantage was that I was in extreme sports before that, so I had that approach already.

In what way does the Budapest course differ from the other circuits in the competition?

You know, it’s hard to tell which course is easier and which is harder. If it’s either, it’s the same for our rivals – and we don’t care about the course, because we just want to be faster. But the Budapest course is very action-packed because there are no straight lines or long turns, it’s just zig-zagging. It’s in the centre of Budapest in front of the parliament. I was never a Formula One driver, but if you look at the pictures it feels a little bit like the Monaco Grand Prix of air races. It’s tight, in the middle of town with lots of turns.

Would you call yourself a showman?

If I were a showman, I wouldn’t be a racer. You need all your resources out there to be fast and safe – you can’t have any time for the crowd.

The Red Bull Air Race will be shown on Showsports 4 live today at 4.30pm. It will be repeated at midnight, and again at 10am and 4pm tomorrow. For more information, visit or

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