A fusion of rally car driving, classic yacht racing, Georgian airships and three-dimensional chess and you have a rough idea of the Queens Cup Balloon Race. Now throw in a massive sprinkling of barking British eccentricity and a dash of those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and you're there.
Audi, In a stroke of creative genius that amply demonstrates their spirit of adventure, sponsored the 2023 Queens Cup Balloon Race.
Definitely one of the most exciting and thrilling races I have ever covered. Imagine a fusion of rally car driving, classic yacht racing, Georgian airships and three-dimensional chess and you have a rough idea of the Queens Cup Balloon Race. Now throw in a massive sprinkling of great British eccentricity and a dash of those magnificent men in their flying machines and you're there.
The Queen's Cup harks back to 1719 and holds the distinction of being the United Kingdom's oldest and most prestigious sporting trophy. Bestowed upon the Royal Aero Club by the Royal Family, this esteemed prize has been presented by the club to various air sports competitions since 2011.
So late Friday evening in mid-October I rushed out of the house and jumped into a chauffeur-driven Audi Q8 e-tron heading west to Taunton in Somerset. Four hours later I arrived at a little pub for the balloon race briefing held by David Bareford who has won the National championships on 9 occasions, the European championships three times and the World championship twice. His son was the world champion in 2018 and his daughter is the highest-ranked female pilot in the world. Luckily for us, only one of them was competing in this Queen's Cup, his son Dominic.
The rules are simple, the race lasts two days and the balloon that goes the furthest from the departure point wins. You must take off in clear daylight and land in clear daylight. That's pretty much it. Except you must avoid all no-go areas of prohibited airspace or be shot down (kidding... though only slightly) and you have no steering.
After the briefing, we drove off to The Castle Hotel in Taunton for a good night's sleep next to the only nightclub in town, which was lively.
Good visibility is all-important in balloon racing, so we arrived at a nearby field at 5.20 am the next day to be greeted by a vista of neatly lined up balloons, half filled, billowing in the mist. The roar of the burners pierced our eardrums as the fires blazed through the early morning light.
Balloon canopies flowed out and upwards as the hot air filled them, rising majestically into the dark sky. The only light came from the flames licking up into the vast spherical canopies, illuminating these aerial silk palaces from within. I watched this scene of astounding beauty in awe as the sun rose and slowly burnt the mist away.
The Audi balloon was tethered to an Audi Q8 e-tron as Rob, one of the ground crew, added more propane tanks to the 50 Kg basket. Most baskets are made of wicker and weigh around 100 Kg as they're easier to land. But our Audi racing basket was constructed of lightweight aluminium and would carry 6 propane tanks to increase our range.
There is a huge difference between passenger balloons and racing balloons, think of this as the Audi R8 Spyder of balloons. A two-seater that goes like the clappers.
The Audi balloon has one advantage over its competitors, it is an Ultramagic Eco Magic airship with two layers, one inside the other to provide heat insulation, like double glazing, so it loses less energy and can go further on less propane. Our handicap was that we were the only balloon to carry three passengers, myself, Richard Penny (pilot/strategist) and Mark Whitewood (co-pilot).
After consulting with the ground crew who would be following us in Audi Q8 e-trons, it was time to go. I vaulted into the balloon and squeezed between Richard and Mark. We had four propane tanks in the basket and two on the outside and could barely turn without shifting our feet to accommodate.
Imagine flying to New York, but the three of you have to stand in the toilet the whole way there. A toilet that is only waist high and presents but a thin layer of polyester between you and a 6000-foot drop. Above the belt, there is nothing between you, the endless clouds and the curved panorama of the earth.
We hurriedly discussed tactics. I was assigned the role of competitor analysis. Make no mistake, balloon racing is rich in strategy and all the more thrilling for it. Richard's aim was to head north, even though the westerly winds were much faster, he hoped to thread the needle of the prohibited spaces between Gatwick and Heathrow and avoid wasting time by landing and going around them. Mark pulled the trigger on the burner as we tried to find the perfect wind, rising and dropping to test the wind direction.
As mentioned there is no steering on a balloon, you just have to find the correct winds going your way at different heights. Of course the more you go up and down the more propane you use.
We did have the advantage of being the last to take off. This meant I could go onto the YB Tracking app and check all the other competitors. This racing app shows the height, speed and direction of every balloon in real-time so we could use all that precious information to pick the best course.
Our teamwork soon paid off, Richard scoured the EasyVFR map with all the prohibited airspaces shown in red, whilst Mark piloted and I read off the speed and height of the lead balloons.
One weird aspect of ballooning is you can hear everything below you as there is no sound pollution. The balloon moves along with the wind, so it is completely still and calm. People chatting, dogs barking and motorbikes rattling along country lanes are as clear as a bell. Even chickens squawking is loud.
The serenity as you sail over the English countryside on a beautiful sunny day is exquisite. The thrill and obvious danger such a small racing basket presents adds a frisson to the extraordinary feat of flying 5000 feet over sensational landscapes, punctuated only by the raucous explosion of the burner as Mark pops it without warning.
The burner hits over 100 decibels, but it's not just the sound, the air implodes as the fire evaporates the propane, inches from your head, much like a hand grenade going off in your ear. It took six hours before I stopped wanting to leap out of the basket every time it went off. Not to mention the heat, it's like opening the gates of hell for a split instant.
But let me state clearly for the record. I was hooked from the moment we took off and the land fell away. Ascending into the air was a huge rush. The teamwork between myself, Mark and Richard was exciting beyond measure. Richard and Mark met at school when they were six years old and have been best mates ever since. I was lucky enough to walk into that tremendous partnership and enjoy all its benefits, professional skills and banter.
The lead balloons were now speeding off at 40 km/h per hour due east. We stayed low at 15 km/h bearing north to avoid losing time with a landing. We could see the other balloons racing ahead of us, soaring over the clouds as we patiently maintained our heading.
"A good time? Is that all you care about? North, Miss Teschmacher, North."
Gene Hackman said those words in Superman II and for some strange reason I quote it often when touring in supercars. At last, I had the perfect occasion to use it appropriately. Richard and Mark recognised it instantly and it became one of many race jokes.
Our plan was to pass west of the no-fly zones around Gatwick and Heathrow but the winds were too slow and westerly so we lost ground immediately to the other balloons and were stuck in last place.
We soon gave up on the north wind and gained altitude hitting 6000 feet to get the faster currents there. Our speed picked up to 60 km/h but we were now heading over Stonehenge to the tiny gap between Gatwick and Heathrow, trying to thread the needle of the tiny corridor of permitted airspace between the two. The tension was palpable as a wrong decision here could lose us the race before it had barely started and we were the only balloon following this risky tactic.
There is only a five-mile gap between the two airspaces of Gatwick and Heathrow, mere inches in balloon terms
The frantic pace of decision-making and planning is at such odds with the tranquil floating in a hot air balloon as you have to constantly monitor height, speed and direction to get the perfect route. Like sailing, decisions have to be made quickly even if the results are not apparent until later.
Richard's navigation and Mark's piloting were exceptional and we managed to float through the massive red prohibited zones between the two airports. Many of the other balloons had to land. Then pack up and race to another location to take off again all within the strict arc that is the distance from the departure point.
You are allowed to drive anywhere within the arc to take off again, always aiming to keep the wind at your back. The arc is easily measured with a piece of string pinned to the departure point. Anywhere in that area is good. But while you are driving, for two hours or more, you are not notching up any miles and losing precious daylight time.
We passed over so many counties: Somerset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey, London and Kent. From Guildford in Surrey, we could see London and Wembley Arena. We drifted over so many landmarks like Guildford Cathedral and Denbies Vineyard with The City and Canary Wharf clear on the horizon.
We had lost ground at first, but now as other balloons had to land we were catching up and had taken third place. The glee in the basket, as we passed one competitor flat out in a field below, was tremendous. First place was well in our sights.
I surveyed the ground for our direction, in line with the roads and trees. Mark read out our degrees and height on the altimeter and Richard plotted our course. I regularly gave reports on the tracking app of the speed and height of the lead balloons and our distance behind them. At one point we were 30 km behind, now only ten remained between us the second balloon and another ten to the first, though they were drawing ahead.
The sky was scattered with balloons all around us as we flew over Ashford International heading towards Canterbury, aiming for Margate.
Richard and Mark commented frequently on the movement of the trees below, an indicator that the wind was rising at ground level, a danger for landing. You need winds around 10 km/h or less for a gentle landing.
Suddenly as we sailed over Canterbury at 1200 feet, Mark noticed the wind had risen sharply so it was time to land. The wind blew even faster as we descended.
Mark told me to brace myself and that the basket might tip over. What?
We hit the ground hard at 35 km/h, bounced three times and sure enough the basket tipped and rocks, stones, mud and straw rocketed at us as we tumbled over each other. Mark and Richard landed on top of me as I ricocheted from one propane tank to another.
We lay there for a few minutes groaning, checking we were all right, then extracted ourselves carefully from the ruins. The trail of our landing stretched out behind us. We had tumbled, bumped and sped over 150 metres, carving a trench much like the one Superman's rocket left when he arrived as a baby.
I thought about this for a moment and realised that balloon racing was possibly my favourite sport of all time.
I shouted to Mark and Richard.
"Any landing you walk away from is a good landing"
They laughed at retorted with a slew of variations on a theme, whilst they picked up bits of clothing and mobile phones left behind in the mud. A lovely lady who owned the field came out graciously to check the damage and see we were all right.
Our ground crew of Audi Q8 e-trons pulled up as they were tracking us on the same app. They had followed us across seven counties with absolutely no idea where we were going. They had to keep us in sight and pick the right roads without any idea what direction we would take next. The Audi support team in their Audi Q8 e-trons (all ladies) were amazing, never losing us.
Rob Durham and Jeremy Bennett, the expert support crew, helped us pack away the balloon, or rather we helped them a bit, and we set off for the Pig. I had insisted that we land near a decent watering hole and Richard and Mark had obliged, getting us within a hundred yards of one of the best pubs in England.
We downed a few welcome drinks and nibbles whilst conferring with the crew over where to go next. The wind direction tomorrow meant we plumped for Lincoln as the departure point.
The Audi crew leapt into action, booking hotels and driving us four hours and two hundred miles north, within the arc, so we could get a good night's sleep at the Lincoln Double Tree on the waterfront. T'was not to be, as they were hosting a wedding and an 18th birthday party that went on until the wee small hours of the morning. In fact, they were still up and celebrating when we left. Emma Barlow, touring in one of the Q8s and a long-time colleague of mine on the Cowes Classic Yacht Race had a group of them knocking on her door at 4 am shouting "Lisa. Lisa, let us in".
Read Emma’s Q8 e-tron tour travelogue here.
I have rarely seen such a glamorous group of 18-year-olds, the hairdressers of Lincoln were busy that day and the East Midlands will be short of sequins for years to come.
We stumbled back into the e-trons at 5.30 am and made our way to Retford airport for the takeoff. Disaster, the mist at the airfield was thick and heavy and you could not see for 100 metres in any direction, a minimum requirement for a safe departure.
All the different balloon teams were scattered across England, but we were the only ones stuck in fog. We watched in despair as the app showed them all taking to the air and speeding north. An hour ticked by, and we were losing precious time and distance. We were genuinely despondent to lose such precious flying time.
In exasperation, we chose to drive out of the fog and risk finding another totally random place to take off from. We drove to the nearest town, stopping every time we found a green or open area we could use to raise the balloon. No access to cars, too many buildings nearby, power cables, everything was against us.
We asked some passersby in the street and they directed us to a nearby pumpkin patch shop with a cafe. They were just opening up as we arrived. We begged for permission to fly and they kindly provided it. The balloon was unfurled amidst the pumpkins whilst balloon enthusiasts appeared in droves. Aeronautical fans had been following our progress on the live stream and in the app and had guessed where we might try to fly from.
As soon as the canopy was filled we leapt like maniacs into the basket, skyrocketing over the town heading north, hoping to get some fast winds and catch up.
We were now in seventh place and our chances looked slim. Richard assured Mark and me that we could make up the time, but his expression said otherwise.
The weather was still grey, but as we rose through the fog glorious sunshine broke through with the mist levelled flat out below us.
The view was mind-blowing. Just fluffy clouds beneath and rays of intense sun beaming through the dappled mist above. It was the perfect representation of the enlightenment vision of heaven. Bruegel, Rubens, Velasquez and Rembrandt would have killed to see this. We were floating in limbo, a twilight zone, nothing but the brush strokes of oil-painted wisps of fog below. Suspended in a gap between two worlds, sandwiched between parallel banks of clouds. The low sun illuminated our narrow plane. Words do not do it justice.
The three of us spent every moment, in between the urgent race decisions, staring in wonder, broken only by the pop of the burner. The chat flowed fast as we exchanged jokes and important information on the competitors and wind speed.
Eventually, we threw caution to the winds and rose higher to catch some faster winds and got lucky. The other balloons were at a medium height but we caught a lovely 60 km/h wind at 6000 feet.
"I love the smell of propane in the morning".
Our banter grew in optimism and excitement as we caught up with the other balloons. As the day wore on, more balloons had to land as they reached the coast and could go no further. We marched silently on, determined to win. We took fourth place early in the afternoon then disaster struck. The winds got up too high and we were heading for some remote hills near York that the support cars might not be able to reach. We would be stranded, we had to land, urgently.
If you are a golfer please look away now. The only spot with the required space was an immaculate golf range. We crashed through the tips of the trees bordering the course and landed smoothly just as a golf ball hammered past our heads. Our basket did not tip this time so the trail of destruction was minimal, but we expected a shotgun greeting all the same.
The gentleman who owned the golf course rocked up in a four-by-four and was most understanding. We took lunch in the clubhouse with only minimal abuse from the regulars. And planned our next departure. Well, when I say planned, we rushed back into the cars and searched desperately for a new launch spot, asking all and sundry for directions to some open ground.
We lost a bit of time with this until we came upon a small patch of land next to a church. I believe a new record was set by Rob, Jeremy and his son for the inflation of a balloon that day. A crowd gathered to watch us whilst we performed a vertiginous takeoff, just clearing a church steeple, and heading north as speedily as possible.
We had dropped back to fifth but our teamwork was superb, we assessed, analysed and planned. We kept north and low, tactically at first, then as the afternoon wore on, we went for it, rising high to catch a more westerly wind, fast and furious.
We overtook fourth place who had taken the easy route, too far east. Now, only three balloons remained ahead of us. It was so tight, there were only a few miles between us all. We encroached closer and closer behind third place who was still going but running out of land, approaching the coast.
I watched and read out the distance on the tracing app, watching the icons of the balloons ahead of us. As the light began to fade we were only a km behind the third balloon. But, we would have to stop soon, before 4.30 pm, a hard and fast rule for all.
Finally, we saw that third place had stopped yards from the beach, the distance between us got smaller and smaller until I elatedly called out that we had passed them by 1 km, just minutes from the end time.
We had to land quickly, we were flying over a railway line and the wind was tracking the train below. We emptied out more hot air and caught a gust blowing us over the track and came to earth with a double bump in the muddy field below, leaving a mere 50-metre trail this time. Much to the surprise of a farmer and his two young sons, one of whom was driving a tractor, a few yards away.
We had flown from sea to shining sea, from Taunton to Margate then on to York, supported by a fleet of Audi Q8 e-trons. It had been the race of a lifetime. Mark, Richard and I high-fived with immense satisfaction as the Audi crew arrived, cheering.
Third place was quite an achievement, particularly as Dominic Bareford who came first and Richard Parry who came second, are both world champions.
That night we all celebrated in style at the George Hotel in Stamford, which required another three-hour drive in the Q8's. The Audi crew had driven over 1200 miles in two days, a feat in itself! Scanning the sky for a glimpse of our silver balloon amongst the silver clouds. Narrow country roads, single track paths through fields, A-roads, spaghetti junctions, they followed on through it all. The Audi Q8 e-tron was clearly up to the challenge. As they were always there within minutes of our landing. The Audi team proved themselves to be magnificent navigators and drivers.
Not sure who I admired most, the fabulous airship pilots or the magnificent rally drivers blindly pursuing ghosts in the mist
Balloon racing is not the same as a balloon ride experience, which is comfortable, safe, luxurious and astonishing. It's a ride in a luxury limo compared to sitting in with Lewis Hamilton during a Formula One race. Both are wonderful, but balloon racing is a glorious, rip-roaring, hair-raising, intensely memorable experience
Who would have thought drifting serenely over the countryside could be so thrilling? Spectacular, both visually and emotionally.
I wish I’d thought to bring goggles, if there was ever a time for ludicrous eyewear and a sheepskin jacket, this was it. The balloonists were a brilliant bunch, but let's up the game sartorially next time. The first balloon flight was in 1783 in France, just before the revolution. Epaulettes were a big thing for men. I propose Georgian-style outfits and epaulettes for the next race.
As the Audi Queens Cup is the oldest royal sporting event, the awards were presented last Saturday at King Charles III and Queen Camilla’s home at Highgrove Gardens after a sumptuous afternoon tea. Team Penney was awarded third place, but we’ll be back for the title soon.