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The Leader | Erich Wolf, chief executive, Red Bull Air Race

In the world of sports the Red Bull Air Race is young – 2017 marks only our 10th season as a World Championship. From the start we knew we had to be smart, agile and fast to make an impact. 

We were sure we had a product that would grab audiences visually and emotionally. Of course, a brand-new motorsport is inherently intriguing. And the spectacle is breathtaking: fantastic destinations worldwide, where the best international pilots fly cutting-edge raceplanes at high speed and low altitude. With podium placement often determined by hundredths, even thousandths, of a second, each race is an edge-of-your-seat experience. But how could we build on that appeal? More importantly, how could we turn fascination into engagement?

Attributes

It goes without saying that various attributes are involved. Our outstanding pilots and race teams, first and foremost. Our talented internal team. An insistence on quality. Key partnerships. Driving forward with focus, but remembering also to step back and look at the big picture. Professionalism, integrity and always putting safety first.

Just creating the sport required innovation. How could we define the racetrack? The answer was inflatable pylons (today they’re 25 metres high) that would be easily transportable as well as safe to navigate at 370km/h. If a raceplane even slightly grazes the thin material, the pylon bursts harmlessly and it’s repaired by a dedicated crew in seconds, so that spectators stay engaged.

Everything we can do to help viewers feel what it’s like to be in the cockpit enhances engagement, too, and technological innovation has brought the sport to audiences far beyond the racetracks. We were early adherents of worldwide live streaming and on the forefront of specialised graphics and digital overlay. Perhaps the most notable innovation has been the ‘ghost plane’. For safety reasons our pilots fly individually, but while one pilot is navigating the track live, his opponent’s finished flight is superimposed on screen as a ‘ghost plane’ to make it easy to see the neck-and-neck finishes and bring home how close these face-offs really are.

One of our recent initiatives is the Red Bull Air Race video game. Following on the success we’ve had with a mobile game, on January 25, 2017 we released ‘Red Bull Air Race – The Game’ exclusively for PCs. We wanted to reach a whole new audience, so we collaborated with an award-winning game development studio to create the first flight simulation with native virtual reality support that offers extremely realistic and unique graphics. The game features authentic racetracks, pilots and raceplanes from the World Championship, so players can identify with their heroes more closely than ever. Playing with a virtual-reality Oculus Rift headset further provides a degree of realism previously unknown in the games segment.

In the sky our pilots have to be simultaneously in the moment and looking ahead – managing the immediate conditions while preparing to engage the next Air Gate, the next turn, the next challenge. That’s a good metaphor for what we try to do behind the scenes at the Red Bull Air Race.

This season we have 14 pilots and race teams in the World Championship, and nine pilots in the Challenger Class of up-and-comers, including our first contender from China. We’ll partner with leading international brands to deliver eight races across the globe, including our debut in the sporting capital of Kazan, Russia.

VIDEO: Red Bull Air Race 2016 at Ascot, UK

Footprint

We’re looking to grow our footprint in the years ahead and we’re especially excited to share the sport more broadly in Asia. This year marks the 10th time the season opener has been held in Abu Dhabi. We had a race in Malaysia in 2014 and for the third consecutive year we’ll return to Japan, where in 2015 alone our media contacts – our audience and circulation through print, online and television, not including social media – for pilot Yoshihide Muroya topped 605 million and 120,000 fans sold out the Chiba grandstands.

Meanwhile, we’re hearing of more investment in aviation and related sports in China, from a boom in recreational skydiving to the Xinhua news agency reporting that the country invested CNY77bn (€10.5bn/$11.2bn) in civil aviation infrastructure in 2016. There hasn’t been a Red Bull Air Race in China yet, but the news sounds promising.

In its first decade the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has created a new dimension in motorsport. It’s been rewarding to watch the sport take off and we are confident that we will continue to reach new heights as the sport progresses.

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