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Top Gun

Competition in the air will be fierce from 2015 with two competing race championships on the sports calendar. Rob Ridley asked the newest event, Air Race F1, how it intends to establish a point of difference to the Red Bull Air Race.

Following a three-year hiatus, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has returned to the sporting calendar in 2014.

However, it will be met with fresh competition in the shape of new air racing series, Air Race F1, which will host its first event in Lleida, Spain, on June 1 this year ahead of a full series launch in 2015.

Organisers are aware of the challenges in facing up to an established event, but are keen to stress that Air Race F1 represents a very different proposition.

“There’s definitely room for both series,” Air Race F1 managing director Jeff Zaltman told SportBusiness International.

“Red Bull Air Race is a cool event and Red Bull does a great job with it, but ultimately it’s a very different sport to ours. The Red Bull Air Race concept is a single plane racing against the clock – by definition, a time trial. Formula One air racing is when airplanes race each other, and the first one across the line wins.”

Air Race F1 is the trading name for London and Spain-based Air Race CC, which boasts years of experience in organising international air races and aerobatic competitions. Billed as “pure motor sport at its fastest,” Air Race F1 is based on the Formula One class of air racing that has been established for almost 70 years.

“I do like [Red Bull Air Race’s] slogan of ‘the fastest motor sport’,” adds Zaltman. “However, I’d take a small issue with that as we race about 100 kilometres-per-hour faster than them.”

Zaltman’s vision behind the new series is to bring Formula One air racing, and the sport in general, to the masses.

“We want to demonstrate that air sports, and air racing in particular, can be a viable commercial proposition. This has never quite been done, in terms of building a profitable series,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but ultimately if we can entertain people and add a new sport to the mainstream mix, this will be a success.”

Key Partner

Lleida’s opening event will be staged at Lleida-Alguaire Airport, which is located around 150-kilometres from Barcelona. Intended as a showcase for the full series in 2015, the event will consist of races where eight teams fly together over 10 five-kilometre laps.

“The [Lleida-Alguaire] airport itself is our key partner, as well as the city and the government of Catalonia – they’re the driving force behind it,” says Zaltman. “Our mission has aligned with theirs in the sense that they’re a relatively new airport with modern facilities and an immaculate runway, but they’re underserviced in terms of chartered flights and scheduled traffic.

“They want to promote themselves and identified Air Race F1 as a great way to do that. From a long-term perspective we see great growth opportunities.”

Looking ahead to 2015, Air Race F1 is engaged in a global search to formulate its inaugural calendar, with the bidding process “getting quite competitive” for an initial three events, according to Zaltman.

Potential host venues do not need to to invest in new infrastructure and can use the event to drive sustainable tourism.

“We’ve had conversations for over a year now and are starting to cast the net a little wider to make sure we find the right kind of venues for the series,” he adds. “We’re planning to have three events next year and we aim to grow to five and then seven before reaching a steady slate of 10 events, which is where we see it going in a few years.

“We’re looking in south America, the Middle East, Asia, north America and Europe. I’d say there are three or four really top candidates in each of those continents and then a dozen others that may come down the line.

“The one thing we haven’t decided yet is how we’re going to lay out the series in terms of whether it will be three back-to-back events or spread it out evenly across the year. This will determine whether we seek venues close together or spread them further apart.”

Zaltman concedes that Air Race F1’s initial budget will be a “small percentage” of Red Bull Air Race’s, but states the respective business models are like “comparing apples to oranges”.

“Red Bull Air Race’s fundamental mission is to sell energy drinks,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is develop the sport, as well as a commercial model. We’re looking for sponsors that want to develop their association with the sport over a long period of time.

“With that clearly comes some kind of ownership of the event, which a title sponsor is a natural part of. But we’re also looking at other strategies where we can get three or four, or even 10 or 20 brands involved.

“[Red Bull] has the luxury of being able to decide to do it and the funding is there, whereas we spend most of our time trying to raise the funding before going on to run the event.

“It’s clearly a much more difficult task, but when we get these partners our budget will increase dramatically and that’s when you can start comparing apples to apples again.

“We’re going to catch up to them at some point – that’s certainly our aim.”

TV Revenues

Air Race F1 organisers say viewers in over 100 countries will be able watch the event on TV, and while Zaltman believes the content action-packed enough to drive strong TV audiences, he says they are realistic about how much revenue they will be able to raise from broadcast deals.

“Luckily our content does the job for us,” he says. “It’s really exciting stuff and there’s no other event like it.

“Logistically speaking, we’re going to have a helicopter filming the races, have on-board cameras in the cockpits with multiple angles so, for example, you can look along the wingtip to see someone trying to pass.

“There’s going to be a lot of action in the show. We’re absolutely convinced that broadcast will be a huge revenue stream in the future, but have the caveat that we’re not planning for any revenue from TV rights this year or next.

“We’re trying to be conservative about that and it’s more about getting the right channels and images out there.”

Growth Prospects

Looking to the future, Zaltman has high hopes for Air Race F1 and believes its initial key for success is communicating the inherent differences to Red Bull Air Race.

“Our pilots are flying faster than those in Red Bull Air Race, with planes either side of them trying to get past and racing 10 metres above the ground at over 400-kilometres-per-hour. We are chasing Formula One and I think in 10 years we are going to be that big,” he adds.

“We’ll have thousands of competitors at different levels in the sport, with Air Race F1 as the international stage. I see this as an ambitious project with very high growth prospects that’s going to be a real player amongst the top sports in the world.”

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