Engineered Systems Ltd

Programme and Project Management by Ed Johnston

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How to Go Fastest

Debunking the Myth

With clearly marked thermals regularly distributed, the mythology is to “run fast and climb high”. Well if you can continue to find strongest climbs from low down throughout 65 hours of racing, you will win this way.

However generally speaking, low was slow. It was risky going down to below 4000 MSL as good thermals were increasingly difficult to find. Over that much time racing you didn’t want to risk the one low point that could easily cost 100pt or more.

So the most rewarding strategy was to run fast but within the sweet spot, stay with the clouds if you could and maximise the chances of finding the strongest thermals.

Height Bands

Very often the clouds were short lived, showing where thermals had been rather than where they were. If you got even 2000ft below base (often at 7-8000) you started to lose touch with the clouds.

You can find strong lift from low down, but it becomes a real lottery the lower you get. Flying low down under clouds increased chances, but very often you found the climb a few Km before, or just after leaving the area of clouds high above.

As you got lower, the risks and stakes increased. Often if you kept your nerve, you would find a thermal just by pressing on and cutting more air. However the lower you got the bigger the loss if you failed to connect. Do you take the 4kt from 4500 just to stay in touch, or press on to the possible 6kt ahead risking an even bigger loss if you don’t find it?

However all this improved as cloud amounts increased. On a 2-3 octa day, thermals would be bubbles with little connection to the clouds. If we got 4-5 octa then they worked much more consistently from lower and allowed good running from medium levels.

Nature of Thermals

Even with more cloud though, the peak climbs and performances were found in tiny little cores. It was entirely possible to fly right by a good thermal while a following glider 200m to one side would hook a good core.

The down side of this is it tempts you to going on too long, looking for a decent climb but risking that low point. It is hard taking 4kt when you know there is 6 to be had, but you can really fall off a cliff by being forced into a really slow climb from low down.

Usually the best speeds where achieved by those that routed round, staying in rising air as much as possible, reducing height loss and maximising the chances of hitting the big climbs. Matthias Sturm and Sebastian Kawa were the pick of the field, often losing least in the glide or achieving the same glide performance 10kph faster. Frequently they did not achieve the best average climb rates but needed less height to complete the task or just flew faster while losing the same height.

Conversely the Italians did spectacularly badly in this respect, failing to find good runs and pushing too far too often and regularly having low, slow get away climbs.

Judging how far to deviate for a good route was a big challenge. Sometimes it was spectacularly good to route around a small or larger hole, but every deviation cost track distance and time with some good looking clouds not working at all. Again Kawa seemed to get this right time after time while mere mortals made occasional mistakes.

Impact on Scoring

With such bursty, small thermals, it was entirely possible to find 9kt on a 6kt day. If you got one it was worth 30pts for each one, sometimes much more! On day 10, Mattius Sturm got one long, bad run on an into wind leg. Two slow into-wind climbs later and he had lost 300pts to Kawa, leaving him to stay clear and win the competition comfortably.

Getting better running was gaining by inches but those inches added up! Even taking account of average speeds, Sturm often gained 40-80pts over a flight this way. Kawa often gained 80-100pts by gaining the same performance at higher average speeds.

Compared to flying in a straight line, average deviation of 30 degrees would cost 15%, or 35 minutes on a 5 hour task when flying straight for 80% of the time. Straight flight does save time and at roughly 8pt/minute, you must be sure deviations for lift will work.