When? 30th-31st July 2016
Where? Popham Airfield, Hampshire
What? The 'Queen's Air Race Challenge Cup' awarded by the Royal Aero Club. Also, 2 places up for grabs for Drone Worlds in Hawaii!
Who? 54 Pilots battling for that #1 spot.
Well what can I say, what a great event! But more importantly (for me anyway), I qualified for Drone Worlds in Hawaii!! With that spoiler over, I'll continue with the event writeup :)
The BMFA were kindly awarded by the Royal Aero Club the 'Queen's Cup Air Race Challenge Cup' which was then given to the BFPVRA as a Specialist Body within the BMFA. That meant it was to be used for an FPV quad race! This was all approved by Her Majesty The Queen and the trophy is of Irish silver dating back from around 1719 and features Royal Arms on one side and the words "The Queen's Air Race Challenge Cup" on the other. It is believed to be the 4th oldest sporting trophy in existence so it really is quite something to bring to FPV racing, it's probably the first and possibly the last time that such a prestigious trophy will be awarded to FPV racing, at least in the UK. We may also never see this cup awarded to the emerging sport again either, so it was an easy choice to enter the race to try and be crowned the winner.
Due to being such a good prize (as I mentioned above the top 2 finalists also secure places at Drone Worlds in October later this year, the last 2 of the 5 places awarded to the UK), the format was a tough one that tried to ensure only the best of the best would be crowned. We ran 6 heats of qualifying whereby the worst 3 were dropped - in order to reward both speed and consistency, where the top 24 of 52 pilots (2 pilots could not make it), would then battle it out in knockouts for a final champion. The lower half of the qualifying table would also have a "Finals For All", sorted by rank again, so that as much flying as possible could take place for everyone who took part.
Here's the Cup, it's made of solid Silver we were told and is pretty heavy! On the bottom plaque were the last few years of previous winners from various other sports, so I presume a name will also be engraved this year too :).
Niall Sheffield came down again to offer some commentary for those that spectated and to just give the race more of a continuous feel. I say this every time but running commentary at events makes a huge difference, and I think it actually helps to reduce nerves because silence tends to just induce pressure - or it does for me anyway!
Groundstations provided by RotorRacing and the BFPVRA were setup ready for pilots to use, amongst myself and others bringing their own groundstations. For such a long and interesting course they provide night and day different to single antenna based setups, especially with the wooded area part of the course. With the course still in your mind, let's go over some of it and how it looked for the weekend.
Just after the start/finish gate we had a nicely crafted tunnel with an "up and over" - I particularly like this one over other sorts of tunnels because the actual tunnel is just a couple of gates - so if you do crash into them they hurt a lot less than metal or wood scaffolding!
On the other side of the track you can see a lot of gates, trees, and flags scattered all around. The course was a long, tight, and technical track. Average lap times were around 35-40 seconds so 2-3 laps was common in the 2 minute race format. The course also made use of the wooded area in the distance which was an awesome use of the terrain, it was a fun area to fly as you could get a really nice and smooth line around it if you took it the right way. It also offered some very lethal metal girders from presumably a building that situated there many years ago - fortunately I'm not sure anyone actually exploded on them which is good!
With a shot from just inside the wooded area, we can see an immediate sharp turn on the left. Lots of gates in the distance show that this course is not for the faint-hearted, and was setup so that a fair winner could be determined for such a prestigious event. Some pilots entered as their first race, and some of which did absolutely awesome (within the top 24). As for the others - I hope it didn't put you off entering future events, tracks at other events have been much easier to navigate so don't let it discredit your own skill :)
We were given a brief video of the track itself (which hadn't changed much from the real course), which actually looked a lot bigger in the video - probably due to the fisheye and distortion of the GoPro. I know that when I first arrived my immediate thoughts were "oh crap this course is a lot smaller than I thought it was" - after I'd been practicing some bigger courses before-hand I was a little nervous about how I would actually do.
The morning itself started the way any FPV race does - pilot check-in's which consist of insurance validation, failsafe checking, channel assignment (if it hasn't been pre-allocated), and VTX power checking. I think we skipped the VTX power checking this time round, but I imagine future events will incorporate that if there is enough man power due to some of the issues we had during the weekend.
With check-in's done and track walking finished we gathered around for a photo of everyone involved (aside from the camera men of course!). With 52 pilots competing this was a big event which contained most of the UK's fastest pilots. Brett decided to not enter due to helping out with race control and designing the track, that and he has already qualified for Hawaii too! :) Brett has designed a few tracks now, including this one, Farnborough, and a few other tracks so he clearly has the knack for getting it right - both of which (Farnborough and this), I have enjoyed thoroughly as they have both provided both technical but fast elements which for me is the best combination to both fly in but also to measure skill.
Here's the list of heats and their associated pilots; pilots were asked to score themselves out of 10 to determine their heats to race in, from the lowest ability right up to the top. For me, this offers much better levels of racing than putting people into random heats because it seems to reduce the amount of crashes if you pair for example the top pilot in the UK with the bottom in the UK you tend to get traffic build up, and on a course like this it makes it very hard to overtake cleanly, but more importantly without taking anyone out of the race.
With that all being done and said, we had 2 rounds of practice to go through. I think we were originally going to run just one round of practice but many had video issues and so it was decided we would run another to ensure all of the bugs and issues had been ironed out. This is typical of any event, the first round is generally used to sort out the kinks, whether it be incorrect channels or other video issues, it is very helpful.
For me, I managed to get round the track OK without crashing on both. I initially set my camera angle very low (around 25 degrees), and took the course as slow as I could in order to learn it without crashing. Learning the course in those first few laps can be key, and so you want to get that done in practice if you can so that you are ready to up the pace in qualifying. I eventually settled on around 40 degrees of camera tilt which allowed me to at a good speed on the straights but was also enough to still be able to see stuff when pottering around the slower parts of the track (in order to not crash).
With practice finished and most pilots having got a feel for the track, we moved into the qualifying rounds, as per CAA rules each pilot had a spotter for the races, to ensure both legal and fair racing were occurring.
Getting stuck in the nets was relatively frequent, it was easy for them to catch you out if you took a corner too fast or wide and it caught me out once too. The nets were impressive if you didn't disarm quick enough because props would get so tangled the propellers would have to be removed to untangle the quad!
Throughout the day we had some demos from helicopter pilots who attended the other half of the day - the Rotor Fest. Some skilled pilots took to the line and showed us what a 3d helicopter can do, included some FPV pilots (Russ Cleaver, who also gave Luke a quick go!!) and even Race Control (Craig) had a go :]
With day 1 complete we managed to squeeze in 5 of the 6 qualifying heats before we packed up for the day - as usual the slow starts in the event soon sped up! We had 9 races per qualifying heat so in the short space of around 6 hours we'd ran around 63 heats not including any single heat re-runs of which we had a couple! Super efficient racing for the Rotor-Racing guys as ever.
We started bright and early on the Sunday with everyone ready to go and eager to put some more flights through the track. Speaking to Gary we had a relatively secure 1st and 2nd place in the qualification rankings so the remaining qualifying round (and the first flight of the day) would provide good practice of the track to refresh ourselves from yesterday. While 12 or so hours is not THAT long, it's enough to get you out of the flow if you plan to get straight back into it.
The mass concentration of pilots when flying is something that always impresses me, the ability to block out any random noises of our surroundings is key to focusing. In the background you can see the results wall, nearly full!
Being situated on an Airfield we were graced with some flyovers of some cool looking aircraft throughout the day. A little smaller scale than Farnborough but still good to see.
Later on in the day we also seemed to have a great thermal right above us, with a load of gliders circling endlessly for a good few minutes before moving to the next one - probably when they realised there was an active runway below that also had NOTAMs in place! Nevertheless I've never seen that many gliders in formation before, pretty damn impressive.
Sorry, onto the racing.. :) so I set out just to re-learn the track from the day before and ensure I could get around it as fast as I could ready for the knockout stages. What I actually ended up doing was setting my best time of the weekend and smashing my lap record by just over a second, something which I was not even trying to do, but seemingly came through via the smooth flying I intended to do in the first place! This brought my fastest lap down to around 28.6 seconds, still relatively far off Luke and Gary's fastest, but something I was proud of!
Here's a quick video of one of the qualifying rounds I had ran. It felt super smooth and the course just felt so fun to fly! Hats off to Brett for designing it :)
With the above qualifying round being excellent, I had secured another 2nd place overall for the whole of that standing on that qualifying round, meaning I'd achived 1st once, 2nd 3 times, a 3rd place and a 4th place.
I couldn't be in a happier position to be honest - no crashing so far, smooth and consistent flying which kept me up the top of the boards. I was ready to go into Knockouts, and this time, show what I can do!
While Eric sorted out the qualifying heats it gave Gary a little time to show me the thumb weights he was using for practice to keep his skills up when not flying :D
I had some stiff competition in the quarter finals with a lot of familiar names. With the top 3 going through I knew I had to pull something out of the bag. Sadly, just into the third lap I managed to overcook the corner just after the tunnel and went right into the top of the netting. I'm not sure what I was doing, I was definitely too high, as for the netting I just didn't see it so it just happened! Luckily everyone else also crashed out, so with me putting in the fastest 2 laps, followed by the other guys who also did 2 laps, we were through to the Semis. The pressure was building up, it was my first mistake, my first crash. I knew that if I wanted to try and win that cup I had to focus again and try not to make any mistakes, because this was where it counted.
I didn't mention, but the Quarter Finals for my heat ended up being quite delayed. Which had a fair few video issues when on the line just like Farnborough and all I could think to myself was "noooo, not again!". Luckily after some power testing, channel checking and ground-station switching we were ready to rock without any video issues. It set me on edge a little bit and I lost the cool composure I had before going into the race but I managed to keep it together when flying.
For the Semi Finals I regained my composure and focused on just finishing, so took my slowest run of the day. It meant I averaged around 37 seconds per lap, but it was enough to get around the course and ensure I was one of the top 3 quads to make it through the next knockout stages. I was actually only a few seconds away from completing my fourth lap but the buzzer went a few meters from the gate. I wasn't too concerned about not making the 4th, I just ensured that I got where I needed to be for the last race.
With both Semi Finals now complete I knew what competition I was up against; Gary kent, James Bowles, Leo Whitfield, Philip Trifunovic and Richard Whelan. I knew realistically that 1st place was not really attainable unless Gary crashed out - this is a very rare occurrence that really only happens during hardware failure. For me, I can accept that, that if I could not take 1st place, I would go for 2nd. We had qualified in this order, and so I just hoped I could pull it out of the bag to achieve what I had in qualifying. After qualifying 2nd in Farnborough and then ending up towards the bottom of the board in knockouts due to video issues (and the battery sag at Delta Hawks after qualifying first) I knew I had to prove to myself that I could achieve what I felt I should have. For me it was not a battle against anyone else, but myself.
With everyone ready, channels changed and the quads sat on the line we set off for the last race of the day! I won't go into too much detail as you can see the finals video below, but it was a little bit of a sketchy round with a few mistakes. I know post-race speaking to Brett and Warren they were a little worried I wasn't going to finish the race; I must admit I was in the same shoes haha, but luckily I finally regained some composure and carried on racing until the end!
One thing I will mention is the wind! It really picked up towards the end of the day and basically made the up and over of the bush impossible to "float" over without hitting the gate so for each lap I think most of us opted for the dirtier but safer "360 spin" route.
It was a pretty sketchy run, there were a couple of big mistakes, but luckily I managed to regain my composure for the rest of it. Considering I wasn't nervous at all in practice and qualifying, I think it was all saved up for the finals! I hadn't made that many mistakes in the whole weekend, never mind that many in just a single run hehe.
But with that in mind, I had made it! I had such a big relief when I took the goggles off, followed by pure Joy. I had completely forgot about the 2 spots for Hawaii and was just glad I could pull off what I had set to achieve, match my qualifying position. Whether I had qualified in 1st, 5th or 30th, I wanted to ensure I could at least perform the same or better under the pressure of knockouts. Again, I was close to a 4th lap but at that point I really just didn't care, for me, I made it.
A few minutes later we went through all of the heats, including those heats that had their own finals for all that were outside of the top 24, where certificates and medals were given to each of the top 3 pilots of that heat. I really liked this, everyone's place should be celebrated regardless of skill so it made a nice change. Getting up there myself next to Gary was really an honour. Aside from achieving what I wanted to, hats off to Gary - he amazes me each time he flies - he's just so consistent and his smoothness and accuracy while maintaining the same height is something I aim for every time I fly.
After the event we did a little Line of Sight flying for some of the reporters that had turned up to report on the event for various publications. Julian Whitfield took a few shots in a row and stitched them together to create this masterpiece, it looks like we're flying so many quads haha!
As usual thanks to all the Pilots who attended! Having 52 of 54 registered pilots turn up is probably a new record, and having so much skill in one place battling it out was epic. There were some people who decided this would be their first race and they did amazing! I really hope the toughness of the track hasn't put them off because they're already super fast and will be ones to watch out for in the coming events.. :)
Obvious thanks goes out to these guys. Once again Rotor-Racing did a top notch job at what they do best. They managed to fit so so many races into one day it was unbelievable. I believe they did at least 63 races on Saturday not including any re-runs (of which we had a couple), what an amazingly efficient running by these guys! FPVLeague.co.uk also brought a couple of people including the BFPVRA Chairman Tom Greer who helped out throughout the weekend to make it such a great event!
It goes without saying but thanks to the BMFA for allowing the BFPVRA to run the event with Rotor-Racing, and thanks to the Royal Aero Club for agreeing to give the cup to this emerging sport which is taking the "world" by storm! I know when I say this but I feel really privileged that we were given such an opportunity.
Thanks to Julian Whitfield for the fantastic photos too, they provide a great medium to highlight the weekend and really show what the quad racing community is all about and the fun we get up to both racing and when we're not racing :)