Fresh Landmark Victory : Melanie on Indianapolis
For French pilot Mélanie Astles, the Red Bull Air Race season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on 14-15 October marked the conclusion of her second season in the Challenger Class – and she couldn’t have capped it off any better. Astles, who clinched her first-ever podium with second place at Indy in 2016, had already earned two more podiums this season (third at Abu Dhabi and Porto), when at the finale she broke through to capture the first win of her career. And it wasn’t a landmark for her alone. The triumph marked the first time a woman had ever stood on the top of a Red Bull Air Race podium. What’s more, it was a milestone for the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself: the first time that a woman had won a major motorsport event in its 108-year history.
Mélanie, how was it to see the view from the top of a race podium for the first time?
It was a fantastic feeling and also an achievement that came from a long road of hard work, spending days and days working toward this moment. Strangely, it happened in a different way than I was expecting: the race result was based on Qualifying, where I had the best time, when the Challenger race was cancelled due to bad weather on Sunday. Anyway, it was really a great feeling and I was proud to be able to stand on the first step of the podium. Also, my dad was there, and it was so nice to have him watching the ceremony.
When did it first occur to you that your Qualifying result might turn out to be the race result?
I saw the forecast before my Quali flight, and I was guessing that the weather was going to be pretty bad on Sunday. I didn’t know that the race would be cancelled, but I had this kind of sixth sense – I was thinking, “This is Quali, but it’s not a Quali. It could be the race.” Also I was really relaxed because I had everything to win. After being sixth in the final Free Practice on Saturday morning, I could only go up, or at worst stay the same, so in the end I just had to relax and fly and enjoy. As usual, I had been analyzing all the different variables for the flight and I’d been testing all the mistakes I could be making, so I had fixed all of that and I knew the job – I knew what to do, thanks to my team. I’ve got a few people working for me from France, and when I was very busy with media interviews, or when I was relaxing and trying to focus, they were working hard and giving me the good trajectories and checking all the data. So they gave me great direction, and I knew where to go and I was relaxed. This was perfect for me.
Was it extra special to take your first win at a place like Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with its long motorsport heritage?
As a real motorsport fan, I’m so delighted to have won in this historic place. And also becoming part of the legacy as the first-ever woman to win a major race there in 108 years of history is really, really, really a great feeling. Plus at Indianapolis, besides standing on the podium, there are also traditions like the kissing of the racetrack bricks. There was so much emotion and so much reward in this achievement. As I say very often, I believe that when you can envision success far in the distance and then work hard, it does somehow happen – and even if it doesn’t happen, it’s always nice to know you’ve done your best. I had been very unlucky at some of the races before Indianapolis, but there’s always a lesson, and I probably needed to fix some things. So I did my best again at Indy, and this time it worked out.
Are you disappointed that you didn’t get to fly on Race Day?
For sure I was disappointed. As a race pilot and competitor, I feel it’s a shame that we didn’t fly on Sunday; however, it’s always about safety first. But I was really willing to try because everything was working well and I was actually managing to be in the zone, in the performance zone. I was feeling good. For the sake of the season standings, it would have been nice to go and get the full 10 points available for the race, because with the results based on the Quali we got only 50 percent of the points. But anyway, that’s how it is. And on the other hand I think it’s much fairer this way, because on Saturday we were all flying in the same weather conditions throughout the Qualifying runs, and that made it much more equal. If we had raced on Sunday, I think it wouldn’t have been equal throughout the race, because the weather and the wind were changing so fast. I would have had an advantage because the first guys flying probably would have opened the door and made the mistakes, and also the wind was decreasing with time, which is quite rare. So I think I would have been the lucky one in the race, but I could have been unlucky, too. Anyway, basically everybody got the same chance on Saturday in the same weather conditions, and that was perfect.
What does the accomplishment of being the first woman to win a major motorsport race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway mean to you?
I was shocked to speak with someone about the history of the racetrack. He was telling me about an aviation meet in 1910 where a woman was not allowed to enter the grounds to meet her husband, who was a pilot, because women were not permitted to get close to any of the planes. Now in contrast, it’s such a great honour for me to be able to write this page in aviation history as being the first woman to win a Red Bull Air Race, but also to celebrate the first-ever time in the history of motorsports that a woman wins a race at Indianapolis and kisses the bricks. So for me, I’ve got this feeling, as I was saying at the press conference, that I’m opening a door, or hopefully breaking what they call the “glass ceiling.” What I hope is that this is just the start of a succession of victories for me in the next seasons. And for me, winning at Indy meant even more because it’s where I earned my first podium last year by finishing second. So I hope next year we’ll be flying there again. I’m just so happy about what’s been achieved at Indianapolis. It was a great adventure!
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