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Series Leader Sonka Starts To Erase Tough 2017 Memories with Top Qualifying Spot

Martin Sonka lost the Red Bull Air Race World Championship last year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the final run of the season.

He went a long way Saturday toward ensuring that won’t happen again this year.

Sonka, from the Czech Republic, was the top qualifier for the elite Master Class with a top time of 1 minute, 4.751 seconds at IMS.

Patrick Davidson of South Africa was the top qualifier in the Challenger Class by just 59-thousandths of a second.

Fourteen Master Class and seven Challenger Class pilots are flying this weekend on a course above the IMS oval infield. Planes race against the clock just 50 to 60 feet off the ground 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.

Sonka led the Master Class standings last year when IMS hosted the final race of the world’s most prestigious air racing series. But he lost the title by four points when Yoshihide Muroya of Japan won the race and the championship with a dramatic, track-record time on the final run of the race.

But Sonka is flying high this year at IMS, which is hosting the penultimate round of the season. He came to the Racing Capital of the World this week after winning three consecutive races, tying a series record, and leads the championship with 64 points.

Sonka could set a series record with a fourth straight win and also clinch his first world title if he wins and second-place Matt Hall of Australia finishes fifth or lower and third-place Michael Goulian of the United States finishes third or lower. If Sonka wins the championship Sunday, it will be the third consecutive year the world title is decided at IMS.

Hall is second in the points with 58 points, while Goulian is third with 55.

“My strategy is to not think and to not let anybody talk about the championship because I want to stay concentrated on flying,” Sonka said. “That’s my strategy.”

Juan Velarde of Spain surprised the field by qualifying second in breezy conditions with a top run of 1:05.226. Hall was third at 1:06.086.

Nicolas Ivanoff of France qualified fourth at 1:06.149, while reigning World Champion Muroya rounded out the top five at 1:06.273.

Goulian, from Winthrop, Massachusetts, created a tough road for himself Sunday by qualifying a disappointing eighth at 1:06.505. He will fly against Canadian Pete McLeod in a No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup in the Round of 14 Sunday.

Sonka will fly against two-time World Champion Kirby Chambliss in the Round of 14. Chambliss, from Tucson, Arizona, qualified 14th at 1:09.163, slowed by a two-second penalty for flying too high through an air gate.

“We were struggling a little bit with the airplane setting today and the correct lines in the training (practice) after yesterday,” Sonka said. “But today, for some reason, it didn’t work. So we changed many things again, like we did in Kazan (Russia), and it worked for us.

“In Kazan, we did these changes on the race day, so now hopefully we have found everything correct and working for us the day before and we can just hopefully replicate the same tomorrow. It’s quite a technical track, especially on the first lap when you have to let your plane accelerate after the standing start. It’s crucial to fly the correct lines. The only thing we can do is stay concentrated and fly our best tomorrow.”

Hall will take on No. 12 qualifier Francois Le Vot of France in the Round of 14.

Davidson led the Challenger Class – the final training ground before the premier Master Class in the series – with a quick lap of 1:10.886. It was the second pole of the season for series rookie Davidson, who also was the top qualifier at Kazan, Russia.

“It’s incredible,” Davidson said about racing at IMS. “I’m completely honored. I had an opportunity to go to the Museum, and to see the names on the wall and have a look at some of the cars and the history, so to fly in here was quite emotional. I’ve come a long way to be here, literally the other side of the Earth.

“It’s an interesting track, a lot of obstacles. You don’t see it in the plane, as you’re focusing on the next pylon. But when you start to take it all in, it’s, ‘Wow, I’m actually here.’

Two-time reigning Challenger Class champion Florian Berger of Germany was second at 1:10.945, with Dario Costa of Italy third at 1:11.459. American Kevin Coleman was seventh at 1:17.896, hampered by two penalties for incorrect level flying that added four seconds to his final time.

The Challenger Class race starts at 11:45 a.m. Sunday. The Master Class Round of 14 starts at 1:05 p.m., followed by the Round of 8 at 3:05 p.m. and the Final 4 at 3:35 p.m.

Red Bull Air Race tickets are available at www.IMS.com. Children 15 and under are admitted free to general admission areas Sunday when accompanied by an adult general admission ticket holder.

A variety of World of Red Bull athletes will demonstrate their skills Sunday, both in the air and on the ground. Performers include Geoff Aaron (motorcycle trials riding), Aaron Colton (motorcycle street freestyle riding), Robbie Maddison (freestyle motocross with the SCSUNLIMITED team), Luke Aikins and Miles Daisher (Red Bull Air Force Skydive Team), Aaron Fitzgerald (The Flying Bulls aerobatic helicopter), Jim Peitz (aerobatic airplane) and Pal Takats (paragliding).

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