The latest ahead of this weekend’s race
Less than two weeks ago, Mélanie Astles of France claimed her second Challenger Class podium of the 2017 season with a strong third-place result in Porto, Portugal. On September 16-17, she’ll be back in action at the last European stop of the 2017 Red Bull Air Race calendar, a return to Germany’s Lausitzring. Here, in her own words, are her thoughts on both races.
Mélanie, how did it feel to be back on the podium with that excellent result in Porto?
Of course it felt really great to be back on the podium. I put in a lot of hard work before the race, and it was really nice to feel that my flying was good. Also the flights were really emotional, flying along this river with a sense of high speed, and feeling carried by the hundreds of thousands of people watching down there on the ground. I think in a way I was representing girl power in the sky, and it was nice to have all these girls and women cheering for me every day and especially on the podium. I really felt their fantastic energy. Now it’s a matter of fixing a few details, but Porto has given me a lot of confidence for the future.
You mention how hard you’ve been working. Leading up to Porto, you were putting a lot of focus on the mental side of racing. Do you think that was one of the keys to your success?
The mental side has been very important. I think I can explain it with some mistakes I made in Qualifying. One, turning early in the gate, was really unnecessary; but basically I was maybe too relaxed. I was flowing and maybe thinking of something else at the same time, and while it was good to be relaxed, it was too much. So for the race I decided to keep the same relaxed way of flying, but with a little added tension. Generally I think my reaction speed is quite fast, so I used a method that I can describe as pass a gate, drink a coffee, and then turn.
It is funny to imagine you with a coffee cup in the cockpit! Can you explain what you mean?
Of course we’re talking about split seconds, but it’s about not turning immediately upon coming out of a gate, because under the stress of a race that could lead to too much anticipation. This strategy worked out very well.
Being in a narrow valley with buildings all around, the Porto track was unique. What did you learn from flying there?
The Porto track was a good lesson and has given me plenty to work on. It offered lots of practice in Vertical Turning Maneuvers and flying chicanes, plus there was no place to make up for mistakes. In the days before the race I intentionally tested the limits of being penalized, and now I have this data for the next races, which should improve my general flying. On Race Day, I must admit I was a bit stressed because of the fog over the bridge. During my Free Practice runs I had a great start speed of 179 knots, which was where you want it, close to the maximum. But unfortunately in the race I started at only 174 knots, which loses a good second over the whole track. As Paul [Bonhomme] said in the live commentary, that’s like putting your Formula 1 car in reverse at the start of a race and going backwards before you go forwards. It’s a pity because although I’m happy to be third, if I could really make everything gel I’d have more chances to stand on the first step of the podium – but it’s a learning process. So I keep working on the mental side as well as training physically, and hopefully in the next races everything will come together.
Let’s switch topics to the Lausitzring this week. You’ve noted previously that Lausitz wasn’t one of your highlights last season. What are you doing to change that mindset?
Lausitz was really tough for me because it was a double-header race that didn’t work out very well. It felt a bit like Kazan this year, where in the space of 24 hours nothing seems to go right, and you drop a lot in the rankings. It was a hard experience, but that was last year, and now everything is ahead. I think you are not your past – you go forward. So to make the Lausitz experience more positive, the first thing is to be positive about it.
And are you managing to do that?
In fact I have a really good feeling about this race, and the great thing is that I’m not specifically trying to make the podium. I’m just trying to be the best version of myself. I understand now that I can only work on the things I can control, which is flying with a good entry speed, flying through the gates in a good position, precisely, smoothly, efficiently – really flying the best way I can. The result will be what it is. I don’t know the word in English, but in French it’s lâcher prise: meaning when you get more distance from an objective, you have much less pressure. I can control my physical feeling, my mental feeling, and my flying, and they are all good, so I’m just going to focus on that and stop worrying about the position in which I finish. If everybody else is better than me, then well done guys, big congrats – but I think this is the game. Just work on the things you can control, and the rest will happen.
Have you had a chance take any training flights since Porto?
The main thing is that I have the experience of flying in Lausitz last year, so I studied the track at home in the short time between Portugal and Germany, but I didn’t fly my plane much. I just flew on a rainy day to check the differences flying in the rain, especially because in Kazan that was a main factor for me. But my plane at home is not the same as the one we race with, and I didn’t want to lose the good feeling I had for flying the Extra 330 LX in Porto.
Can you share anything about your strategies for the Lausitzring track?
Initially I’ll probably take a bit more risk in my trajectories – in a safe way, of course, but risking pylon hits or maybe entering with too much speed, just to see the racing limits like I did in Porto, and find good lines to do the best I can. I think I have everything to win. I used to say “I have nothing to lose,” but now my positive thinking has me looking at things in a different way, and so I have everything to win here. It’s doing my best that will make me the happiest possible after the flight. Whatever the result, if I’ve given my best, I’m happy.
With your result at Porto, you pulled yourself up above the cutoff point to qualify for October’s Challenger Class final at Indianapolis. But Lausitz will be important too, won’t it?
I’m not a lock yet for Indianapolis. I am fifth and the cutoff is the top six, so given the points spread, if Ben Murphy and Daniel Genevey get on the podium and I’m at the bottom, I won’t qualify for the final. Yes, Lausitz will be important, but let’s look at the good things that can happen: I can still end up on the season podium. If I have a good result in Lausitz and get a good result in Indianapolis, I could move up to fourth, third or (though it would be very difficult) even second overall. If I don’t think about it and just fly the best I can – calm, relaxed and precise – I believe I’ll be fine. And I’ll be happy. That’s what counts.
Mélanie, as always, thanks so much for your time. You probably want to get back to preparing for the race!
First, though, I would really like to say a big thank-you to all the people following me, and to say how much their energy lifted me up in Porto. I’m sorry that I can’t answer each one individually, but I want to let them know how much I appreciate being surrounded by such amazing support. Also I want to send an immense thank-you to the people closest to me. Some will not even want me to mention them, but my thanks go out to my sponsors, my friends, my team and all the people who are giving me help and advice, including those who help me with the technical aspects and my mental and physical coaches. Basically the progress we’re making is not my victory, it’s a team victory. And I think my power is to have so many great people who are following me and pushing me and making things possible. So thank you to everybody. Now let’s go ahead towards the next level!