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Australian Hall, Frenchwoman Astles Set Pace in Qualifying for Red Bull Air Race World Championship at IMS

Australian Matt Hall continued his strong weekend by taking the top qualifying spot Saturday in the Master Class for the Red Bull Air Race World Championship event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Melanie Astles of France made history in the Challenger Class, becoming the first female top qualifier ever in the world’s most prestigious aerobatic racing series.

Fourteen Master Class and six Challenger Class pilots are flying this weekend on a course above the IMS oval infield. Planes race against the clock at low altitude while exceeding 200 mph, navigating a low-level slalom track marked by 82-foot-high, air-filled pylons called Air Gates. Each timed run is 2.5 laps after a standing start, navigating a total of 19 Air Gates.

Pilots turn as quickly and efficiently as possible, pulling up to 10 G’s in some turns before flying toward the next gate. Penalties are assessed for hitting the Air Gates, for speed and altitude violations or for not flying in the proper formation through certain Air Gates. The quickest pilot against the clock in each round wins.

Hall turned the quickest time overall in two qualifying rounds while flying in sunny skies at IMS, turning a best lap of 1 minute, 4.149 seconds. He was the quickest overall in two practice sessions Friday at 1:04.055, when lighter winds produced higher speeds and easier flying conditions.

The strong weekend continued a recent flourish of performance for Hall, who has finished third and second, respectively, in the two rounds preceding the season finale at IMS. He isn’t among the four pilots mathematically eligible to win the World Championship Sunday but still could play a big role in who wears the crown.

“I think it’s rather amusing that I’ve been thrown into the mix now, and they (World Championship contenders) have all come up to me individually and asked me to knock another guy out and help them on their way to the Round of 4. In the end, I can’t do anything about that because I just get matched up with who I get matched up with.

“I’m just going to fly my hardest.”

Less than one-half second separated the next four qualifiers. Petr Kopfstein of the Czech Republic flew to second at 1:04.390, followed by Juan Velarde of Spain at 1:05.400.

Championship leader Martin Sonka of the Czech Republic was fourth at 1:05.463. Pete McLeod of Canada, third in the championship standings, qualified fifth at 1:05.464. McLeod is seven points behind Sonka in the title race.

The other two contenders for the championship, Yoshihide Muroya of Japan and Kirby Chambliss of the United States, suffered through tough qualifying sessions.

Muroya, just four points behind Sonka in second, ended up 11th at 1:07.732. That time included a two-second penalty for incorrect level flying. Chambliss, fourth in the standings and 11 points behind Sonka, also incurred a two-second penalty for flying too low and qualified 12th at 1:07.754.

The first round is seeded like a March Madness bracket, with the top qualifier taking on the slowest, the second qualifier against the 13th quickest and so on. That format sets up a high-stakes showdown between No. 4 qualifier Sonka and No. 11 qualifier Muroya in the first round, with both pilots’ World Championship hopes in the air.

McLeod will take on Mikael Brageot of France in the first round, while Chambliss will fly against No. 3 qualifier Juan Velarde of Spain.

Changing winds scheduled for Sunday could make the course fly much differently than the first two days at IMS. That suits Chambliss just fine, as he prefers challenging conditions.

“The wind is going to blow; it’s going to totally change the way we fly the track,” Chambliss said. “So it will be a new day, a new race tomorrow.”

Astles stunned the field in the Challenger Class – the final training ground before the premier Master Class in the series – with her quickest lap of 1:18.059. She was last in the final practice earlier in the day at 1:20.687, a time that included a two-second penalty for climbing in an Air Gate.

But she became only the second woman to claim a top qualifying position for a major race in the 108-year history of IMS. Pippa Mann won the pole for the Freedom 100 for Indy Lights – the final ladder series to the Verizon IndyCar Series – in 2010. Astles recorded her first career podium finish in the series last year at IMS, when she placed second.

“It was a real pleasure to fly today,” Astles said. “The level is very high. The wind will be really different tomorrow, so I’m expecting something really new tomorrow. I’m happy about my performance today. But I know tomorrow is going to be a completely different game.”

Luke Czepiela of Poland qualified second at 1:18.378. American Kevin Coleman was fifth in the six-pilot field at 1:20.402.

Aerial activity Saturday at IMS starts at noon with the Challenger Class race. The first round (Round of 14) for the Master Class starts at 1:05 p.m., followed by the Round of 8 at 3:05 p.m. and the Final 4 at 3:37 p.m.

Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for the Red Bull Air Race World Championship and for more information on the event weekend. Children 15 and under receive free General Admission when accompanied by an adult General Admission ticket holder.

An interactive Fan Guide for the event also is available at www.ims.com/RBARFanGuide.


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