Defending champ Bonhomme plays it cool as race preparation heats up
CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom â€“ He may have a Red Bull Air Race World Championship win under his belt but British pilot Paul Bonhomme isnâ€™t taking anything for granted as he prepares to defend his title. The unflappable and extremely calculated pilot has spent the winter planning how to raise the bar in order to remain ahead of his rivals in 2010. He is fully focused on the challenge that awaits.
The firm belief that the other teams are working tirelessly to raise their game this year has fuelled Bonhommeâ€™s own competitive streak, regardless of how laid back he claims to be. You might think the pressure would have eased now that he’s proven he is worthy of the title. Not so. Bonhomme says there is still plenty of tension this year, despite the trophy on the mantelpiece.
â€œIt kind of evens out to being about the same as last year but for different reasons,â€ he admits. â€œInstead of trying to shake a demon off my back Iâ€™m now keen to do as well as I placed last year. Iâ€™m personally not bothered by exterior pressure of people saying â€˜will you win the championshipâ€™ â€“Â itâ€™s more about personal drive to not do worse than last year.â€
No stone unturned
Bonhomme may project a calm exterior but this man clearly wants to win â€“ he wouldnâ€™t have invested time and money into further improving his Edge 540 otherwise. Technician Wade Hammond has stripped down the race plane, re-built it and consequently reduced the overall weight in a short space of time. Itâ€™s been a pretty intense month or so since the Edge arrived in Arizona, where Hammond is working on the modifications. Last yearâ€™s lessons are being put to good use it seems and close analysis of other teamsâ€™ results have influenced technical strategy, as Bonhomme explains:
â€œIt was no secret that we focused on aerodynamics last year and put weight and power on the back burner whereas a lot of other teams â€“Â notably Hannes Â â€“ went for a light weight airframe and put a bigger engine in, but didnâ€™t do much with the aerodynamics. Even though we won the championship, if you look at the net times, Hannes was in the quicker aeroplane.â€
With the unveiling of a radically re-modelled race plane in 2009 it was easy to spot where the team had focused their attention. This year â€“ and after having had their fingers burned with an underperforming engine in 2009 â€“ Bonhomme says no stone has been left unturned in the quest for engine power.
â€œProbably to the untrained eye there wonâ€™t be any difference, although we have stripped the plane right down and rebuilt it,â€ says Bonhomme with an air of confidence, adding, â€œit is very different even if it looks the same. Believe me weâ€™ve made a lot of changes. Halfway through last year we discovered that the engine we were flying wasâ€¦ well, crap. We were promised a lot of good things with that engine that didnâ€™t quite materialise. It was far from what we were expecting in terms of power.â€
Last year the teamâ€™s Edge was also way off the minimum stipulated race weight of 540kg but itâ€™s been on a serious diet over the winter and shed those vital pounds.
â€œWeâ€™ve addressed the weight issue so Iâ€™m very confident weâ€™ll be at the lightest weight possible,â€ confirms Bonhomme. â€œIâ€™m also planning to lose some more weight myself. At least half the pilots weighed significantly less than me last year â€“ I probably had a 20kg disadvantage over someone like Yoshi or Matt,â€ he adds.
After a relaxing Christmas at home with the family, Bonhomme is now in overdrive preparing for Abu Dhabi at the end of March. â€œWe basically have just seven weeks in which to fit, test, modify, retest, refit and go flying,â€ he says, adding that heâ€™s already fully booked up with media appointments and other meetings. â€œThis is the time when we really want to be flying as we basically lose the aeroplane with non-stop freighting throughout the season. While youâ€™re sat there itching to put parts on the plane, itâ€™s somewhere across the Atlantic â€“ we have threatened to leave Wade with enough packets of sandwiches and bottles of water and put him in the container!â€
Second time around
Put the calm faÃ§ade to one side for a moment, however, and you can guess Bonhomme wonâ€™t want to see the title slip from his grasp now he has it.Â â€œYes, there was a huge amount of relief to get the title last year and to a certain extent it makes it a lot easier but at the same time I donâ€™t want to come second again,â€ he confides. â€œIf you have a realistic goal and you never quite achieve it then thatâ€™s frustrating. In life itâ€™s important to have high goals to keep progressing and in this case the frustration was coming second, certainly in 2007. It was so painfully close; if the rules had been very slightly different then it would have been in the bag. To have that goal and to have not achieved it was frustrating but now I have and thatâ€™s a good feeling.â€
So should we expect a Bonhomme first place finish in all 8 races this year? â€œThat would be nice,â€ he smiles, before quickly switching back to a matter of fact response, â€œthe goal for this season has to be to do at least as well as last year â€“ so winning the championship. Can we do better than last year? Yes, I suppose we can win more than half the races.â€
Photo: Rob Vogelaar