Marking the Win with Hamilton

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is more than a cathedral of speed—it’s the Vatican. Since 1911, the fastest men in the world have come to these two-and-a-half miles and four corners to add their faces to the greatest prize in motorsports: the magnificent Borg-Warner Trophy. The Yard of Bricks has been on my bucket list since before I could walk, but I’m almost embarrassed to say I had never made the pilgrimage before. And what better partner to explore the Great American Race Track with than Hamilton. Hamilton’s involvement in the globe-trotting Red Bull Air Race series runs deep; not only have they become the official timekeeper for the series in 2017, Team Hamilton has been partnered with veteran pilot Nicolas Ivanoff since 2005.

Spirits were high we landed in Indianapolis for the beginning of the race weekend. The lead-up to the race weekend itself was ripe with drama: as the championship entered its final round, the Red Bull Air Race world title was still wide open. Four out of the fourteen pilots in the series were still within striking distance of the prize, with enough championship points left up for grabs for any of the four to have a realistic shot at the win.

Nicolas Ivanoff

In fourth place, with an outside chance at the trophy coming into Indianapolis, was series veteran Kirby Chambliss. Fifty-seven years old and with a wealth of aerobatic experience stretching back to the ’80s, the American ace is no stranger to the pilot’s seat. He’d won the title twice before, earning the Red Bull Air Race series crown in 2004 and 2006, and he has built a reputation as a tough, unflappable flier capable of unbeatable speeds on the right day.

The next contender sitting in third was Canadian pilot Pete McLeod. McLeod was a bit of a dark horse in the title hunt, having collected the 2017 Fastest Laps award at the previous round in Lausitz, Germany. But McLeod was also well known to be a sensitive jockey behind the stick. In high winds or unpredictable conditions, he has a reputation for conservative flying that leaves him vulnerable to more aggressive foul-weather pilots.

In the championship runner-up position was one such pilot—the Samurai of the Sky, Yoshihide Muroya. This Japanese master’s flamboyant flying style and unusual two-handed grip on the control stick have earned him the “Samurai” moniker, and coming into the race Muroya had some additional motivation to take the win at Indy. 2017 Indy 500 champ and fellow countryman Takuma Sato had accompanied Muroya to this final round, both for moral support and to help secure a Japanese sweep at the Brickyard for 2017.

But even with the additional help, Muroya had his work cut out for him at Indy. In order to lift the 2017 championship trophy, he had to dethrone championship leader and title-favorite, Martin Šonka. Hailing from the Czech Republic, Šonka was more than just the favorite to win—he was title sponsor Red Bull’s poster boy and an ice-cold operator renowned for inch-perfect flying no matter the situation.


As the title fight entered its final stage, the race itself was truly anyone’s game. As we arrived at a beautifully sunny IMS on Friday morning, the pilots were in the midst of the first practice of the weekend. Our hosts at Hamilton were ecstatic as their pilot Nicolas Ivanoff topped the timesheets, and shortly after the session ended we headed into the hangar to speak with the team and take a closer look at Ivanoff’s incredible machine. Despite the name, Ivanoff is a Frenchman by birth, and carries himself with an old-school French movie star swagger. The confidence isn’t just an act, either. Over a decade-and-a-half of air racing experience, Ivanoff has earned a reputation as a real wild card. For our other racing fans, the closest comparison I can make is to Kimi Räikkönen. While Ivanoff’s not always at the top, on the right day he’s terrifyingly fast, and he can be nigh-on unbeatable.

Ivanoff’s Zivko Edge 540
Inside the cramped cockpit, right in Ivanoff’s field of view, is a large decal dryly proclaiming “SAFETY THIRD.”

Like all but one of the pilots in the Red Bull Air Race series, Ivanoff flies the nimble Zivko Edge 540. The Edge 540 represents the pinnacle of aerobatic design. It’s capable of performing a full 360-degree roll in well under one second, climbing 3,700 feet-per-minute and sustaining cornering forces of up to 12 g’s, allowing an average lap speed of 220 miles-an-hour through hairpin maneuvers. The single-seat plane is incredibly compact, with an overall length just over 20 feet and a wingspan just over 24 feet. The steel tube frame is covered with a carbon fiber skin—the entire package weighs in at a hair under 1,550 pounds. Powering the Edge 540 is an air-cooled flat six-engine (just like a classic Porsche 911) producing 300 horsepower and giving the whole platform nearly the same power-to-weight ratio as a fire-breathing DTM touring car!

With such skilled competition, race victories often come down to the hundredths of a second. Hamilton has an incredibly difficult job to accurately time and score these events as the official timekeeper. The crack team of timing experts Hamilton employs, however, are more than up to the job, and they bring with them an incredibly extensive array of equipment to achieve it. The timekeeping team of four technicians sit in a booth in IMS’s famous Pagoda structure, high above the course with a commanding view of the entire circuit. Each technician monitors a bank of computers that are linked to sensitive photo-finish cameras, timekeeping sensors, and wing level sensors located at each pylon. Each pylon contains a bank of three sensors with redundant systems for each in case of sudden failure. The photo finish cameras operate at 10,000 frames per second, allowing the team to accurately observe every move from every pilot in every session. In the event of an incorrect level flight penalty (two seconds added to lap time), inadequate marker smoke emitted during lap (one second time penalty), incorrect flight altitude (two seconds), or a pylon hit (a full three seconds!), the team can analyze and highlight the relevant footage and timing data within seconds, delivering to the race officials their recommended penalty with documentation. This allows for speedy and accurate decisions by race stewards, and it also reduces the number of disputed calls by angry team owners to almost zero.

With a far better understanding of the sport under our belts, we settled in to watch the afternoon’s qualifying session. After Ivanoff’s successes in morning practice, expectations were high, but the rest of the field had found their footing and the French ace could only manage 7th. Meanwhile, the grizzled Kirby Chambliss flew too low through one of the course gates and the resulting two second time penalty landed him all the way back in 12th. The Flying Samurai Yoshihide Muroya picked up a two second penalty as well, this one for incorrect level flying through a gate, and landed just ahead of Chambliss in the 11th spot. Pete McLeod put together a solid 1:05.464 qualifying time to line up 5th, but championship leader Martin Šonka managed to pip the Canadian by a mere thousandth of a second—a 1:05.463—to claim 4th spot. It was affable Australian Matt Hall that led the way after qualifying, however, posting a blazing time of 1:04.149 to put his Edge 540 on pole.

The next day, I awoke to the patter of a gentle Midwestern shower on my window. The skies above Indianapolis were pig-iron gray as our shuttle brought us to the speedway for race day, the spitting rain becoming an angry downpour as the wind freshened to a stiff breeze. Almost immediately, the decision was made to delay the race start by an hour, then two. Wind and rain meant more than delays, however. Like any form of motorsport, rain brings chaos. It is the great equalizer, that which affects all machines equally and separates the truly great pilots from simply the good. It’s in changing conditions that you see the classic performances, the races that stick with you and that you bring up years later over drinks when discussing the sport. In fact, for the Red Bull Air Race, it wasn’t really rain that was the problem, although I’m told if it rains hard enough, the force of raindrops hitting the fuselage at over 200 miles an hour can strip the paint clean off the plane.

The real cause for concern was the wind. The pylons are only wind resistant to 25 knots, and any more than that causes them to sway violently—a real problem when pilots are supposed to fly between two of them with millimeter precision. Strong enough winds can also blow planes slightly, but undeniably, off course, especially during the aggressive cornering maneuvers necessary for a competitive time. We waited well into the afternoon for the wind to die down, which it eventually did. Not to a full calm, but just below the 25 knot threshold deemed safe for competition.

The race itself began with the Round of 14. This was a first elimination round with the top qualifier in a timed heat against the 14th place qualifier, followed by the second place flier against the 13th pilot, and so on and so forth. The winners of these heats, along with the fastest loser, would advance to the Round of 8.

America’s Kirby Chambliss

Almost immediately, the championship fight was thrown into disarray. Before the race was two heats old, McLeod was out of contention for the championship. Heat two was even more interesting. The top two title competitors were seeded against each other, with Muroya taking the course before Šonka. Muroya flew a blistering circuit, but after a two second incorrect flight level penalty he looked to be easy pickings for the Czech ace. Šonka was similarly quick, but the high winds claimed another victim as his plane flew wide and clipped a pylon for a three second penalty. Šonka had lost the heat with a 1:07.866, but with the field setting slower times as the winds made them cautious, he still could hope for the fast loser spot. In his heat, Kirby Chambliss had no fear of the high winds. He leaned on his decades of flying experience and looked on pace to set the fastest time thus far before pushing too hard and clipping a pylon in the gates, costing him the heat and any lingering chance at the championship. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s pilot Nicolas Ivanoff had a dreadful flight in the iffy conditions, collecting two level penalties and a cut pylon for seven seconds of penalty time to finish dead last in the field. A great day for our hosts, it was not.


At the end of the Round of 14, Šonka had survived by the skin of his teeth. There was still a two-way battle for the title, with Muroya needing Red Bull’s own pilot to finish third or worse to claim the championship trophy. This round was followed by the Round of 8, another round of eliminations leading to the Final 4.

Germany’s Matthias Dolderer

Both of the surviving title contenders broke through to this final round, matching up alongside last year’s champion, Matthias Dolderer from Germany, and Spanish wild card, Juan Velarde. First up in this final round was Yoshihide Muroya. The Samurai of the Sky took off into a course still howling with wind. I still don’t claim to be an expert on air racing by any means, but as a motorsport lover what happened over the next three laps was some of the finest racecraft I had ever seen. Muroya was precise, aggressive, and kept getting quicker over each lap—finding tenths-of-a-second through the fast curves, the chicanes, even the treacherous 10 g vertical turn maneuvers.  He carved through the circuit like a demon, and at the end he came away with a 1:03.26, smashing the track record by over a full second.

The title was still far from Muroya’s. If Martin Šonka could simply manage to beat Dolderer and Velarde, a seemingly easy task, the title would go back to the Czech Republic. As he took off into the course after respectable flights from both the German and the Spaniard, it was anyone’s guess what might happen. Šonka’s early intervals were quick. Perhaps not quite as quick as Muroya’s, but certainly faster than Dolderer and Velarde, and as he came into the vertical turn maneuver to start his third and final lap, his grip on the championship title seemed secure.

Yoshihide Muroya

As the Czech ace pulled his plane into the final climb, however, disaster struck. His engine stalled as he climbed through the vertical turn, costing him airspeed and precious seconds as the plane glided and Šonka desperately tried to restart the engine. In the end, he succeeded and the plane finished the three lap circuit, but the restart had dropped him more than 4.2 seconds behind the pace of Muroya. Martin Šonka had finished fourth. The Japanese crowd behind me exploded as it became clear that the Samurai had taken the title, who landed his blue and green Edge 540 and taxied past us, cockpit open and pilot waving furiously.The podium ceremony began and the stoic, somber tones of the Japanese national anthem echoed forth from the loudspeaker. It’s those final moments that often stick with me. They’re a reminder that behind it all are real human beings, with real human drama. These are the moments that casual racing observers rarely care to watch, but they’re the ones that matter most in the end.

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Hailing from Redondo Beach, California, Sean’s passion for design and all things mechanical started at birth. Having grown up at race tracks, hot rod shops and car shows, he brings old-school motoring style and a lifestyle bent to his mostly vintage watch collection. He is also the Feature Editor and Videographer for Speed Revolutions.