Martin Šonka ready for Cannes spotlight

The Red Bull Air Race moves to the French Riviera for its second event

The Red Bull Air Race has its second event of the season at Cannes on April 20–22. Czech pilot Martin Šonka, who finished last season in second place, has his sights set on winning this season.

Cannes, best-known for its glossy film festival, makes its debut on the eight-race circuit.

“It’s a new location and new race track in the calendar, and that’s always exciting. We’ll be flying over the water surface, and because it’s over the sea we can count with winds changing the game every time,” Martin Šonka told Prague.TV.

“Because it looks a like very fast track, we’ll have to be very careful to not over-G the plane. That will be the crucial thing,” he added. The rules penalize a pilot for exceeding maximum acceleration, for both the safety of the pilot and spectators. In a sport where fractions of a second count, there is a fine line between fast and too fast.

The whole sport is developing rapidly, and all the pilots on the circuit are at the top level, according to Šonka. “We can literally say that every single pilot can win the race. Competition is incredibly tight, and every single detail counts in the end. Differences are so tight now. We speak about tenths and hundreds of seconds and it wasn’t like that at all in the past years,” he said.

But his goal this season is clear. “We’ll definitely fight for our best, the target is to finish better than last year in the overall standings. So it’s easy to find out what target it is,” he added.

Šonka came in fourth in the season opener in Abu Dhabi, after a technical issue was discovered that pushed him back from what at first looked like a third-place finish. Even before that race, he had some concerns.

“We had several technical problems in Abu Dhabi and we’re doing our best to solve it to be in the best shape in Cannes. We knew that the plane wasn’t on the top of its power, and we felt it simply didn’t fly on its maximum. We’re trying to change this, this is the priority,” he said.

The post-race technical inspection found that the magnetos in the engine were not aligned in accordance with the rules.

“It was very sad and disappointing. …We had technical problems with our plane and we were penalized for something what we didn’t realize could happen. Therefore, we didn’t check it prior the race, and that was the mistake. It’s a very painful learning experience but we hope this experience will help us in upcoming races,” he said,

The plane’s weight remains a concern, as this is one area where pilots can get an advantage. “That’s a big issue. Everything that was possible to remove is already out of the plane. So to decrease the weight of the plane more is almost impossible. But I can work a little bit with my personal weight, and I’m trying to do it really hard. I need to lose at least couple of kilos. I have special coach and program, so I hope I can make it before Cannes,” Šonka said.

The Red Bull Air Race season still has never had an event in the Czech Republic, though there is a race this season in Budapest, Hungary. “It would be awesome [to have a Czech race] but it’s not easy. There is probably no proper location that would fit to the air race demands in Prague for several reasons. This race also costs some money; somebody has to pay for a license to host this event in the Czech Republic. And to bring these things together seems not to be an easy job right now,” he said.

“But never say never. I know that some research was or is being done, so let’s see what the future brings. And let’s hope. It’s definitely our dream to fly in front of a home crowd of fans. I’m sure it would be an incredible and unforgettable experience. Not only for Czech pilots in the air race but for all fans and people who love flying,” he added.

Šonka, who just turned 40, has been interested in flying all of his life. “My father had a lot of books about flying and pilots in the Second World War. When I was 17 years old I flew in a glider and since that time I knew I wanted to become a pilot. And I did everything possible to fulfill this dream. In the beginning every single crown I got I invested into to get a license. I was helping at the airfield with everything I could, I simply fell in love with flying and it’s the same until now,” he said.

He spent some time in the Czech Air Force, and has flown a variety of planes including the Gripen. “It’s something totally different and in reality, you cannot compare it. I loved flying supersonic and I love flying the Red Bull Air Race. I miss flying a jet fighter, of course, but I decided to do air racing and I have never regretted it. It brings a lot of emotions, joy and experience. To work with my own team is something that I really like and appreciate. This is the journey I chose and I’m fully focused on that,” he said.

The Red Bull Air Race this season lasts until November, and 14 pilots are competing. The races have a round of 14, a round of eight and a final four. Pilots negotiate a course around inflated pylons.

After the race in Cannes, the next event is in Chiba, Japan, in May and then Budapest in June.

Red Bull Air Race
Martin Šonka

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