How following the Grand Prix helped me to better understand racing strategies
Updated: Jan 2
I find difficult to acquire a good tactic for glider racing. I try to explain here what living races like the sailplane Grand Prix Finals brings me and how it is helping me to gain experience.
to Thomas Reich
I like competition, flying with/again other pilots, sharing the experience and trying to optimise my decisions to perform the best. I like the emotion of it. 15 years ago, I was flying a lot, doing a bit of competition too. However, I was never really good at proper racing I must admit. I think one of my problem was that I could not see the impact of a poor decision, like staying in a weakening thermal, taking the wrong energy line, not working enough on my route choices and my trajectories... I must have experienced it, while flying with other pilots but either they were way better (so the problem was not only 1 decision) or they were like me and it is likely they were doing other mistakes, making difficult for me to really understand what I did wrong.
How to take better decisions to increase your average cross-country speed is a real challenge that I am not planning to cover here (mainly because I still don’t know). I would like just to share my experience about the different methods to improve that I tried (or not) and how I think watching Grand-Prix helped me a lot at one point.
Obviously, you need to fly and fly again. First, it is the funniest part of the training but also the only one that is essential. We need to climb well, work on our glide, have a good reading of the sky.
But I think I would have learnt faster with a bit more of theory background about tactics.
The best is obviously having a coach and being part of a team. Nothing is better to improve, than to have a good briefing-debriefing sequence, but a lot of pilots don't have access to a coach and need to find other option, if there is. A lot of pilots are also improving by reading books written by word champions and outstanding pilots. They are explaining their strategies and share their experience. I think that really help to take better decision, avoiding losing time just by reading well documented mistakes. Also, you can analyse IGC flights, compare them between pilots, look at the statistic. I like data and I think it can be good to compare your own flight with the one of your competitors. I have not done it when I was doing a bit of competition. At that time, I think it could have been helpful. Indeed, I recently analysed other pilots IGC flights (from the last word championship in Hosin particularly), trying to pool data out, comparing averages and standard deviations…. That worked really well to get a better overview among many parameters: angle of deviation, different speed range at different day. I am not sure how much you can extrapolate from this kind of analyses as they are based on a handful number of pilots and are true for a specific championship in a specific meteo, not talking about interactions occurring in the air between pilots... Moreover, these cold data are not helping to understand the decisions made during the flight, the ones that make the winner and the ones that make you lose widely. For that you need more than to analyse the trace. And even then, all the gliders are not leaving at the same time, the weather on the task can change, ... Basically, I found that trying to learn experience by looking at pilot trace was not really efficient for me.
But that was before I learnt how to live a race, even if I am not flying it…
The Grand Prix Finals
In 2014, Benjamin got involved into managing the 3D imaging to follow the race of the Sailplane Final Grand-Prix in Sisteron (France). I already knew the concept, as I volunteered for the first Grand-Prix final ever in 2005 in St-Auban. But in 2014, the situation was really different: I already stopped gliding and I was stuck at work, in London. To, still, feel part of the event, I started to follow the races online.
Just a small introduction if some of you don’t know the concept: It is pure racing. 20 pilots are starting at the same time (regatta start). They need to complete a relatively short task (~ 200 - 300 km) as fast as possible. At the end of the race, the first to arrive win 10pts, the 2nd: 8pts, the 3rd: 7pts, …, and if you arrive more than 9th, you don’t have point, welcome in the ZPC, the Zero Points Club! After a week of competition and potentially 8 races, the pilot who has more points win! The regatta start and the very sharp point system make every second lost potentially very expensive and so tends to advantage pilots that are flying less conservative. If your option is not working, then hey, not a big deal, you get 0pts… as half of the pilots! In a classic competition, an outlanding would cost you very likely the podium, not in a Grand Prix as tomorrow you could get the 10pts and the previous winner just a ZPC! There are around 10 qualificative Grand-Prix along the year to select the best pilots (2 by competition) who will compete in the Final. Except scoring and format, there is also one big difference: for at least the Final, the races are transmitted live and commented by two experts and some guests (always including a local pilot). They help you to really understand what is going on during the race and the advantage/inconvenient of each decision made by the pilots.
In 2 hours, the pilots demonstrate how a race is won or lost. You can easily follow the progression of a group versus another / a single pilot who try an escape. Very quickly you can witness the effect of pilot decisions. Among the few things I noticed is how often, two different options can be relatively equivalent after 50km. Obviously, they are really good pilots so they are choosing between 2 good options but still, it makes you question if the indecision between two cumulus lines who look equivalent is worth it. Same with the decision to leave a good group if they are not choosing the same route than you. On the contrary, others are extremely damaging. The final is generally taking place in mountain area, making line of energy relatively easy to visualise even without real weather data. Consequently, you can appreciate, the time that good pilots invest to reach a good energy line and you can see that the pilots that are not doing it, tends to pay it after a while. As the live broadcast is focusing on the head of the race, you are not only gathering information from the pilot(s) you know but you follow a lot of different pilots, each of them with their qualities and style. Finally, and I feel sorry to feel that, I find reassuring that even the best pilots lack success or even are making big mistakes sometime. However, compared to me, I have noticed a big difference: they are able to recover from it really fast.
In addition, as a real pilot I can imagine myself in the different cockpits, so with the live commentary, I am living the race with each of the pilots: I evaluate their decision, their choice, would it be mine (or not)? I can also feel the frustration when they realise that they are losing time, but they really need to climb now. I feel also their joy, when they managed to get back into the leading race after a badly negotiated area. If you add to that the impressive final glides, with pilots fighting to be first, as the distance between them shorten, I got really involved into the race. I think it helps me a lot to learn from their race, taking a bit of their experience as mine.
Now, I am also following Benjamin when he is flying in competition, following his race. In international competition, I obviously stay far away of any kind of analysis attempt (Eric Napoleon is there for that and do it way better than me) but we managed after the competition to have good chats about his strengths and few observations I was able to make.
Ok, I clearly enjoy following the races but did that help me to improve my flight? I would say yes but I still need to put what I have learn in practice. Since 2014, I only entered one competition: the pre-world with Benjamin, last August. Overall, the experience was great and I would say that I often took decisions that Benjamin did not find stupid, and I was often able to stay critic about his own choices. That worked really well for us. Being in the cockpit is obviously very different. Taking the decision, based on what you see is funnier and having to deal with the risk of losing 20 minutes in a low is one of the crazy excitements of this sport. But I also often found myself a bit frustrated of being "alone", without a global view of the race. For example, if we were slowing down in a sector, or after a mistake, I really wanted to know if the other ones were doing the same, so basically “it is like that, no worry it’s fine” or if, only us, we were trapped in a no choice situation “sorry, mistake, now stay calm, climb, even if it is weak and as soon as possible find better if there is…”. This is also a big advantage when you are in a team, with enriched data from your teammate to get this kind of information or from the ground, very valuable to just stay calm or… at least be aware that you made a bad one!
I still need to train to improve my technical skill. Flying with Benjamin in the two Discus this early season made me painfully aware that after 8 years without flying, I mainly need to have my feelings back. But I hope being able to go back in competition soon and see what I can apply when I am racing in solo.
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