Welcome to the start of a new Red Bull Air Race World Championship season!
We're back in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi for a tenth season this week and will be bringing you as much of the action, tension and super competitive racing that gets us up and out of our seats!
The weather here in Abu Dhabi is perfect for today's Free Practice sessions, which are underway...
We'll be live on here all day local time on Friday 10 February for Qualifying and again on Saturday 11 February for Race Day. New for 2017, we'll also be showing our Challenger Cup race on our LIVE webcast on Saturday from 0900 UTC!
So let's take a look at who's competing in 2017, starting with our Challenger Cup pilots...
For 2017 our crop of fresh talent is made up of nine pilots, with three newcomers to the mix
World medalist Kenny Chiang will open a new chapter in China's motorsport history in 2017, when he becomes the first pilot from his country to compete in the Red Bull Air Race. Chiang will be joining the Challenger Class along with two more international newcomers – Daniel Genevey of Hungary and Baptiste Vignes from France.
The Challenger Cup pilots are currently in the middle of Free Practice 2 and we've already seen a strong performance from Sweden's Daniel Ryfa, who finished 2nd overall in 2016... word at the Race Airport is that he's here to take the title in 2017!
As Sweden's top aerobatic pilot, Ryfa has a strong track record having taken 2nd place in his first ever competition...
In this morning's FP 1 session he posted 1:01.403 and has already made a big jump up the timesheets this afternoon, stopping the clock in 1:00.540. He's sitting in 2nd place behind German pilot Florian Berger...
Berger was Ryfa's biggest rival in 2016 – and went on to win the title, after dominating during the season with two race wins
Berger is the only pilot to have posted a time under 1:00 in either of the Free Practice session – he's in the top spot with a 59.172 run in FP2
Among the new competitors for 2017 is Kenny Chiang, from Hong Kong. One of the youngest pilots to compete in the sport, the ambitious flyer arrives with a bronze medal already to his name on the World Aerobatic stage...
We've also got Baptiste Vignes from France and Daniel Genevey of Hungary...
Competing here in Abu Dhabi:
While Astles was fastest overall in FP1, she slipped to 5th place in FP2. It was Berger who was consistently strong in both sessions, moving from 2nd place to 1st in FP2...
OFFICIAL CHALLENGER CLASS FP1 RESULT:
OFFICIAL CHALLENGER CLASS FP2 RESULT:
And here's another glimpse of the lineup here in Abu Dhabi plus Kenny Chiang who will be around observing his counterparts from the ground...
Here's Baptiste Vignes buckling up for his first flights in Free Practice earlier – an exciting time for the newcomer!
Before we move on to the Master Class Free Practice sessions, let's take a quick look at the racetrack here in Abu Dhabi
It's a modified version of the 2016 track, with gates 5 and 6 changing to single pylons, rather than double air gates... this means it's more of an S-turn to navigate and sets the pilots up for the high G turn at gate 7...
Key to success in this track will be optimising the line from the chicane to gate 3 so that's where we'll be looking to see who can claw back time
And now to the Master Class of 2017!
The big news for this season was the addition of Cristian Bolton from Chile and Mika Brageot of France to the Master Class
Bolton made an early debut as the stand in pilot at the end of 2016, while Brageot participated in the Master Mentoring Program under the tutelage of former World Champion Nigel Lamb
So a quick reminder of our 14 Master Class competitors:
Matthias Dolderer GER (defending 2016 World Champion)
Matt Hall AUS
Nicolas Ivanoff FRA
Yoshi Muroya JPN
Pete McLeod CAN
Kirby Chambliss USA
Martin Sonka CZE
Michael Goulian USA
Juan Velarde ESP
Francois Le Vot FRA
Peter Podlunsek SLO
Petr Kopfstein CZE
Cristian Bolton CHI
Mika Brageot FRA
We're underway with the Master Class Free Practice 2 session now so we'll update you with the overall results from the day when this concludes... and in the meantime we'll share some of the epic flying with you so you can get your fix!
Master Class Free Practice 2 session has concluded so we will let you have the info you've been waiting for! It's time to see who's off to a confident start in the first race of 2017...
Let's not forget that Matt Hall, who finished 2nd overall in 2016, is flying an Edge 540 V2 here in Abu Dhabi after he had to decommission his MXS-R at the end of last season... so we are very interested to see how he's made the switch and whether this could really affect his chances of taking that elusive title...