She earns a living as an aerobatics pilot, so it’s not surprising to learn that Melanie Astles has lofty ambitions.
The Anglo-French pilot debuted in the Red Bull Air Race Championship’s Challenger Class in 2016 but certainly wasn’t settling for simply flying under the radar in the male-dominated field – finishing a respectable seventh, with just 12 points separating her and champion Florian Berger.
She began her second season in Abu Dhabi last weekend with an impressive third-place finish and is targeting nothing less than the title this year.
Ultimately, the 34-year-old wants to reach the elite Master Class. With the rapid progress she’s making, it’s difficult to see anyone keeping her grounded.
What is your aim for the rest of this season now, after such a thrilling start in Abu Dhabi?
I want to be on the podium for each race and to win the Challenger Cup, for sure. I want to give a good picture of myself and hopefully, it can lead to me getting into the Master Class. I think winning the Challenger Cup would be good for that. I’ve been working so hard for the last few years and I put a lot of work together in the winter and it’s worked well immediately. The ultimate aim is to get into the Master Class, for sure. Not at the moment because I need this season to build more experience. The Master Class is much faster so this year I will be building my skills to be able to get into the Master Class. Next year we will see if I get the chance.
What were the biggest things you took away from your rookie season in 2016?
The rookie year was very interesting. It was the best season I could have expected. I was testing the limits and hitting a lot of pylons last year to see how far I could go, testing the judging panel. I saw some interesting videos about Moto GP riders and how, basically, the first year they make all the mistakes, the champions make all the mistakes, so then they understand how to get better. Hopefully I will be better this year. Last year I was learning so much and being looked after and now I have the experience to attack a bit more. I was hitting pylons last year and getting penalties so this year I want to fly clean, be consistent. I didn’t hit one pylon during any of the flights in Abu Dhabi so I’m happy.
How much does it help that you’ve managed to secure your own plane for this year?
I didn’t fly in-between races last year because of that issue, but I’ve financed a plane now. I’ve been fighting to get a plane to be able to train to get to the same level as the guys and finally it’s worked out. I would have liked to have raced in Vegas but I knew something was going on because in the practices I was a bit better.
What’s special about Abu Dhabi? Do the pilots like coming here?
I think so because we are in February, it’s 30 degrees. Everybody’s been talking about the landscape and how beautiful it is. You take off and you’re so relaxed looking at the landscape and thinking what a great chance it is to be here. I wouldn’t say it wasn’t a stressful race but I was so happy to be here and just enjoyed the flight.
What race are you most looking forward to this season?
Indianapolis. Because I was second place there last season, it was my best finish. I know what to do there, I understand the track. I like the static take-off procedure and it’s also the final for this season. It’s the six best pilots who get there so if I get there I’ll know I’m one of the best pilots this season.
In such a male-dominated sport, how have the male pilots adjusted to seeing a female not just entering the Red Bull Air Race Championship, but also competing and beating them?
It’s interesting because a man is obviously different to a girl, but in racing we’re all equal. I’ve been really welcomed and my team has been great with me. Even if there are difficult moments I’m always well supported. There’s advantages and disadvantages but we’re all equal.
The media attention must be great but is it harder because there will be some people saying you don’t belong or waiting for you to fail?
It is a bit like that. I had a lot of media attention last year which was great, but also I was able to focus less, because while all the guys were working I was talking to media. Now it’s a bit easier this season. When you’re exposed to the media you’re also exposed to making mistakes as well, or saying something you shouldn’t say, so it’s stressful. People, when they see you on TV, they can get jealous or whatever, but there are so many people supporting me, girls writing me messages that I’ve inspired them. All this positive energy is above all this nastiness and jealousy that can happen.
It’s such an elegant and captivating sport to watch, but comes with many risks too. How did you get involved in such a dangerous sport?
All motorsports are dangerous and this of course is a motorsport, so there is a risk. But after being involved in the Red Bull Air Race for a year now, the first concern is of organisers is always on the safety.
What sports did you watch as a kid?
Formula One. I was brought up close to Monaco and always went to the Grand Prix. I loved Ayrton Senna, of course. I was a huge fan of him and Michael Schumacher as well.
Outside the cockpit, are there any other sports you play, or hobbies you have?
I love racing of any kind. I’m sponsored by BMW so I get to race cars on track. I love that. Motorbikes also, but I slow down on those because I don’t want to hurt myself and end my season. I also love mountain biking. I live in a beautiful place in the south of France and I love mountain bikes. I also go running for 15km a day and I like being out in nature.