Return of 'F1 of the skies'

It took only about a minute. But that was all Peter Besenyei needed to manoeuvre his plane around a 5km aerial racetrack at speeds of up to 370kmh on Thursday, slaloming past chicanes and performing a 10-g vertical turn.

That is almost twice the gravitational force experienced by Formula One drivers when they negotiate fast corners; yet as he climbed out of his Corvus Racer 540, the Hungarian showed little effect of his just-completed practice session.

"Just another day in over 40 years of flying," he said with a smile on his weathered face.

The 57-year-old is one of the most experienced pilots in a 12-strong field looking to prove that they possess the right stuff to rule the Red Bull Air Race.

Dubbed the "F1 of the skies", the series is back after a three-year hiatus, during which safety levels were heightened and a Challenger class for newcomers to cut their teeth was introduced.

"The break allowed us to work on a lot of things," race director Jim DiMatteo said. "We've enhanced the overall product and the safety aspect, without detracting at all from the excitement and the energy of the sport."

The relaunched championship took flight this past week in Abu Dhabi and will feature a further seven stops, including Putrajaya in May, Las Vegas in October and a season-ender in China the following month.

At each leg, the 12 pilots take turns navigating a pre-defined aerial racetrack in the fastest time possible. Standing in their way are 25m-tall pylons, which serve as air gates to be passed through.

Hitting one of these inflatable structures or passing them at an incorrect height will result in time penalties or even disqualification.

With the waters of the Arabian Gulf and the city skyline combining to make for a sparkling backdrop to the first Air Race since August 2010, hundreds of spectators took to the sands of Corniche Beach in downtown Abu Dhabi for a glimpse of the high-speed action.

It was a welcome sight for the pilots, who have spent most of the past three years performing at air shows.

"I'm very happy to start again," said Besenyei, who won the inaugural series in 2003 but could manage only an 11th-placed finish yesterday.

"I fly every day, all year round but, in competition, it's a different story - your adrenaline levels go way up."

That is something Briton Paul Bonhomme knows all about. A commercial pilot with British Airways, the 49-year-old's love affair with planes goes back to when he was a six-year-old growing up in Buckinghamshire.

"Flying is a beautiful experience but trying to go smoother, more efficiently and faster than the other guys is really good fun," he told The Sunday Times.

"The key to this sport is knowing how close you can get to the edge, without frightening yourself."

The Air Race's most successful pilot with 13 race wins and two world championships, Bonhomme began the defence of his 2010 crown by pipping Austian Hannes Arch to victory yesterday.

But there was less joy for the only Asian in the race airport. Japan's Yoshihide Muroya finished ninth, but has set his sights on making it to the pinnacle of the sport within the next five years.

"It's a big honour to be the only Asian among the 12 pilots," said the 41-year-old Fukushima native, who made his Air Race debut in 2009.

"In the aviation world, Asian pilots are quite some way behind those from Europe and the Americas. It won't be easy to catch up with them but I'm here, so we can definitely do it."

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