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'Mika' Brageot and Cristian Bolton join the Red Bull Air Race Master Class.
Their journeys to get there may have been very different but, for Mickael ‘Mika’ Brageot and Cristian Bolton, the sensation is very much the same at the opening Red Bull Air Race in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
The two newcomers to the Master Class for 2017, it is perhaps misleading to call them new recruits, the pair having cut their teeth in the Challenger Class previously to earn their flying stripes for the higher echelons of aerobatic #racing.
While their end point has been the same, for Bolton the journey began in the Chilean military. Having dreamed of being a pilot as a young boy, he signed up when old enough aged 18 for military service and soared through the ranks to become a fighter pilot within a few years.
It culminated in him winning his national Top Gun Award, and then becoming the Chief Instructor at Chile’s Air Force Academy and Tactical Fighter School, a nod to his own capabilities in the cockpit.
But he argues that representing his country and entire continent is an altogether different challenge.
“Having an opportunity to compete in the Master Class is the greatest challenge in my #racing career, and we are a great team,” he said of Team Bolton. “I’m proud to represent my country as the first Chilean in this #competition, and I also feel a huge sense of responsibility and pride in representing an entire continent - Latin America - in this demanding sport.”
A debutant in the sense that this will be his first full season in the Master class, Bolton has made two forays in the class before - in Indianapolis and Las Vegas last season - after the former Lieutenant Colonel was called up from his position as a standby pilot on that occasion.
“We are really excited for 2017, though you might say that for us, our season started back in Indianapolis,” he said, "because everything since then has been a good learning curve.
“The way we look at it, our ‘warm-up’ races are over, and now we are focused to continue learning and win races! We are a great team and fully dedicated to eventually becoming the best, and to be the fastest adversary possible to the other teams at every race.”
Up against the newcomers are 12 other rivals in the air, including defending champion Matthias Dolderer.
Brageot has been given the perfect grounding, mentored last season by Nigel Lamb, the 2014 champion in what was his last season before retiring, and he literally takes over Lamb’s wings with his former Breitling #racing Team.
The partnership has clearly been working with Brageot having won the 2015 Challenger Cup.
Having acted as a shadow to Lamb over the past year, he said: “I was right there, backstage, so to speak, and able to watch the whole Master Class team process. I learned a lot, race after race, and not just from flying Nigel’s race plane in the track - it was everything. In the Challenger Class we don’t have teams, you know, but in the Master Class it’s like any other top-level motorsport, a real team effort.
“From the team side, I learned the roles of the team members and how they’re organised and work together. From a flying perspective, it was my first time flying through a racetrack with Nigel’s race plane. It’s something huge to jump in a high-performance race plane.
“I knew the general feeling because I fly aerobatics in a high-performance aircraft. But the full race experience of piloting a high-speed machine, flying in the track, being under the race director’s control, with everyone watching you – and having to be at the same time safe but efficient, while keeping in mind that I still have to learn a lot of things… It was a great deal to take in.”
Brageot’s background is in aerobatics. Having taken his first flying lesson aged 11, a decade later he was a member of France’s national aerobatic team, making him the youngest pilot to represent his country in that format.
As for his ambitions for 2017, they are initially modest ones.
“I’d like to be somewhere in the pack - not to be last,” he said. “If somewhere along the way I can have a good surprise and be close to the top, that would be perfect.”
Brageot’s mantra is that he is ever learning, describing Lamb as the “perfect teacher”.
Ahead of his initial foray in the Master Class in Abu Dhabi, he adds: “When you arrive at a season opener, it’s a challenge for everyone involved, because everybody on site is getting their bearings all over again – but I was like a baby, you know? Or maybe like my first day in a new school. I didn't really know what to expect, how things worked within the team or what could happen.”
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