Think of it as the Formula 1 of the skies. A lot of very rich middle-aged men playing with very expensive toys in a 6-month-long global competition, because they can. That's the Red Bull Air Race. Although in this case, unlike in Formula 1, all the rich middle-aged blokes take part themselves rather than staying behind the scenes flashing their wallets. All the glamour and beauty comes from their aerobatic skills, and not their Chuckle Brothers looks. This weekend the "competition named after a fairly cheap energy drink" has touched down in London, on the River Thames alongside the Millennium Dome. I was lucky, I got a free ticket as a resident of one the three boroughs adjoining the site, so I went down to Peruvian Wharf to watch yesterday's Qualification Day. And wow.
I must congratulate the organisers on their choice of location. Not only did the Dome and Canary Wharf provide a most impressive backdrop to the event, but they also managed to find a stretch of the Thames where virtually all non-paying spectators could be barricaded outside without any view whatsoever. When each grandstand seat costs £50, you don't want common plebs accidentally enjoying a slice of the action, do you? A brief glimpse of the action was possible from the elevated section of the DLR between East India and Canning Town, but otherwise it was pay up or go home disappointed. Queues at the ticket office were not excessive.
Here's how London's air race works. A series of inflatable cone-shaped slalom gates have been erected on barges mid-river along Bugsby's Reach, between (approximately) Trinity Buoy Wharf and the David Beckham Football Academy. A series of top international stunt pilots then take it in turns to manouevre their way down the course and back, twice, completing a a nailbiting 360 degree loop inbetween each pass. Some gates have to be entered vertically, others horizontally, and there's a special 4-cone "quadro" gate at the end which requires two perpendicular passes. Missed gates suffer a time penalty, signalled by a loud horn, and the fastest pilot wins. You have to be a damned marvellous pilot to be able to complete the course, speeding above the surface of the river at up to 250mph, and enduring 8G forces during the loopy turns at each end which do nasty things to your insides. This is not a sport for wimps.
Having arrived well before lunchtime, it took a long time for the action to actually start. Maybe that's why the event is sponsored by Red Bull, because you need something artificial to keep you awake before anything happens. But we were lucky with the weather. It was cool and unexpectedly windy, so the pilots decided they needed an extra warm-up round before the competition proper and we got 50% extra flying time. For the qualifying proper, each of the 12 participants flew the course twice. They zoomed in overhead from their temporary runway at City Airport, then circled the sky south of the Dome above the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. On the command "smoke on!" they dived down to the first gate and began weaving their way at great speed between the 20m-high towers. Ninety-odd seconds was all it took to complete the course - that and a serious amount of nerve.
It was all too easy easy, after the first few passes, to become strangely blasé about the incredible spectacle unfolding in front of your eyes. Only one pilot accidentally clipped one of the gates, which emitted a strange high-pitched pop before deflating limply into the river. Not to worry, a crack team were ready in a nearby speedboat with a spare, and the spiky-tipped inflatable was ready for action again within minutes. Other than that, no accidents. I suspect a lot of the crowd, video cameras poised, were secretly disappointed by that.
Throughout the afternoon we spectators were treated to a full multimedia experience, via a televised commentary broadcast on big screens alongside each grandstand. We even enjoyed real-time close-up cockpit shots of the pilots' cheeks wobbling as they swooped overhead, and were able to lip-read the odd swear word after a particularly disappointing circuit. The Brit/American commentary double act were always ready with all sorts of statistics that sounded meaningful but almost certainly weren't, always to two decimal places. Thankfully the grinning duo managed to stay the right side of knowledgeable throughout.
And the commentators kept very quiet about one particular quirk of the day's events. The Qualifying Day was designed to select the 12 fastest fliers who would go forward into today's competition. But there were only 12 pilots taking part anyway, so Saturday's events served only to shuffle Sunday's running order. London's part in this year's Red Bull Air Race will all be over by ten past two this afternoon when trophies will be awarded to the victorious competitor in the knockout final (from what I saw, that'll probably be rugged American Mike Mangold). Don't worry if you haven't got tickets - you can watch the event on Channel 4 shortly afterwards, starting at ten to three. It won't be the same as actually being there (zoom, whoosh), but you'll probably see more and in greater detail. And it'll be considerably cheaper too.