Are Grand Prix starts and scoring the future of Gliding Competitions?
A personal perspective
By Shaun Driscoll
I am not and never have been a competition glider pilot.
Many pilots are however, for whatever reason, and that’s fine. For my obviously considerable sins, I was recently the Competition Director for the Victorian Soaring Association’s 2022 Competition held from 4 to 11 December 2021 held at Benalla. No, that is not a typo, due to Covid the 2021 VSA Comp was held in March 2021.
Following on from Terry Cubley’s comprehensive report on the VSA 2022 Comp in the previous edition of Australian Gliding, I thought it might interest some readers to read my personal views of how I thought the Comp went, given that we experimented (and I use that word intentionally) with a modified version of a Grand Prix start and scoring system. If you have a beef with my perspective or consider that I have something fundamentally incorrect, which is entirely possible, please reread sentence one. I have no vested interest in the outcome of any competition.
The Good Old Days
As I understand it, previous racing events in gliders involved pilots winning by flying around nominated tasks in one of two ways – either by being the fastest around a number of fixed locations, or by flying around a number of fixed locations of variable size in a nominated amount of time, called an Assigned Area Task, aka AAT. Glider races before GPS (the ‘good old days’?) involved taking a photo of each turn point, usually a recognisable location such as a concrete silo, to prove that you had flown there and passing through a start line and a finish line, with points awarded for both distance and for speed.
A pilot could start whenever they wanted after launch which often resulted in dangerous gaggle flying and other ‘start gate’ games by comp pilots. The advent of GPS and more and more sophisticated on-board glider computer systems has made navigation to any GPS coordinate and scoring of glider competition races easier, but also much more complicated, with an ever expanding competition rule book to match. But the two types of races (fixed tasks and AATs) have largely remained the same, as has the scoring system.
To overcome the problem that the winner of a gliding competition is the pilot with the biggest wallet who can afford the latest and greatest glider, a handicap system has been expanded to permit older or less competitive gliders to participate in a competition. This handicap solution has proven very popular as the vast bulk of gliders by number, both in Australia and worldwide, are fun to fly but you aren’t going to win a podium position flying one in a serious competition unless a glider performance handicap is used.
An alternative way of running and scoring a gliding competition has recently been tried, namely Grand Prix starts using Skyrace rules. This has every glider starting behind a fixed start line at a nominated time and finishing above a fixed finishing circle at a minimum height AGL close to the airfield, with gliders tasked to nominated fixed locations, determining the size of the circle at that location by the glider’s handicap.
There are various penalties for different infringements like airspace, starting before the gate is open and so on, which are built into the Skyrace software (livegliding.com) that uses trackers that each glider carries. These trackers transmit the position and altitude of each glider in real time, so a classic ‘live racing maggots’ screen can show how each pilot is going on task. Because the clock starts running as soon as the start gate opens and thus everyone starts at almost the same time, if you are the first pilot back at the airfield then you are either the winner of the day, or you missed a waypoint on task or incurred a penalty which will adjust your position relative to other pilots.
In an ideal world, Grand Prix starts are supposed to make gliding competitions interesting to watch for spectators on the ground. Some versions of this start model set the maximum start height at 2,000ft AGL and a 90kt maximum ground speed. This can make the start line visually interesting to people on the ground but it’s a very sweaty-palmed experience for the pilots involved! There are also some valid questions about the risk/reward equation of this type of start when pilot safety is apparently placed second to a sports marketing opportunity of dubious value. I once heard the America’s Cup yacht racing described as exciting as ‘watching paint dry’ and, except for committed gliding enthusiasts and afficionados, I think this applies equally to gliding races.
But if the maximum start height is lifted to around ¾ of the convection height, rounded up to the nearest 1,000ft, start speed is 90 knots ground speed and the start line is 10km in length, then theoretically, pilots are given the same chance to start at the nominated time. This is usually 20 to 30 minutes after the last launch has been completed, and from anywhere along the start line, which should minimise hectic start line gaggles and silly start gate games. It also prevents someone starting above everyone else, such as by having climbed above the convection in wave.
The trackers issued to each glider are the authoritative instruments regarding start time, start height and start speed as well as distance to fly and finish height. However, to assist pilots – and potentially to add an element of theatre for those few on the ground watching and listening – there is a start gate countdown over the radio, culminating in a ‘three, two, one, GO’ call.
The other interesting aspect of Grand Prix starts is that the number of points you win each day depends on how many of your fellow competitors you beat home. At the VSA 2022 Comp we varied the usual Skyrace rules and gave one point each day to:
- Every glider that started, and
- Every glider that finished the set task, and
- Each glider the pilot beat to the finish line (with outlandings scored by the distance flown), and
- A bonus point for winning the day.
So, let’s say we have a modest number of, say, 10 gliders – all suitably handicapped for performance using the GFA handicap tables, with the handicapped distance required to be flown on task reduced by the circle size at the nominated waypoint. The winner would get 1 point for starting, +1 for finishing, +9 for the competitors behind him/her, +1 bonus point for winning, which equals 12 points for the day. The second placed glider would get 1+1+8=10 points, the third would get 9 points and so on. Obviously, infringements would vary that result appropriately. You could beat a fellow competitor by 10 seconds or 10 minutes but the points awarded would not vary.
If you had a much larger number of gliders, for example, if Club Class had 20 competitors, then it would be 1+1+19+1=22 to the winner, 20 to second place, etc. If you had 6 Open Class gliders, then it would be 1+1+5+1=8 points to the winner, 6 to second place, 5 to third, etc. A tie in points is theoretically possible, which fortunately the VSA 2022 Comp did not have to face as not everyone agrees that the proposed solution for resolving the ‘equal points problem’ is satisfactory.
Love It, Hate It
A competition that strictly followed Skyrace rules only scores the first 10 gliders each day, but for a comp with a larger number of gliders this would be very disheartening to less competitive pilots who could fly a whole competition and still get zero points at the end. The modified way of scoring described above that we adopted at the VSA 2022 Comp would mean that even a slower pilot would get a point each day for going through the start gate and potentially another one for finishing.
The tactics for pilots for such a Grand Prix start and the points system for scoring are quite different to a ‘normal’ non-GP format of gliding competition. Some pilots love it, others hate it. The impacts of this style of racing also brings its own issues for the organisers of such a competition. If there is only one class in the competition – Skyrace was designed for Club Class gliders only – the start gate part is relatively straightforward, but with multiple classes and a larger number of gliders, the complexity is much harder to handle, both for pilots and organisers. The VSA 2022 Comp had over 32 gliders across three classes – Club Class, 15m/Standard and 18m/Open.
In no particular order, my observations of this style of glider racing and scoring are as follows. First, the GP format appears to make tasking less flexible than is ideal. When the weather is booming, this GP format is great but on marginal days with a large number of gliders, the tasking was difficult because the software does not support a mixture of distance and time handicaps or AAT style tasks. Almost all of the pilots really liked the place-based scoring system and thought the GP format was good for promotion – to the extent that there was any!
There were a variety of views about the gaggling at start gates, but most thought it was probably better and certainly no worse than at a ‘normal’ non-GP comp. Originally we used 20 minutes, rounded up to the nearest 5 minutes, between last launch of a class and start gate open, but with the whole eastern seaboard awash with rain, we had less than ideal weather with a significant cool southerly wind making climbing away off-tow difficult. This also resulted in quite a number of relights. Consequently, it was very difficult to make a fair start when the gate opened often only minutes after releasing off tow after a relight. These are not such big issues at a non-GP format competition.
Increasing the gap to 30 minutes, rounded up to the nearest 5 minutes, between last launch in class to gate opening time, proved a better solution to this issue. Interestingly, however, a number of pilots were ready to go at start height and location after 20 minutes but 10 minutes later at the opening of the gate they had fallen back to release height or were not at the start gate location due to the winds. This demonstrated a unique feature of a GP start – it is essential to be at the right height, place, speed and time when the gate opens as it is almost impossible to recover from a poor start in this type of glider race.
I alluded earlier to the issue that a GP start is fine for a single class of gliders, but it’s a headache for everyone involved with multiple classes of gliders. Skyrace has a suggested script for radio calls saying when the gate opens, the maximum height and ground speed, when pilots must be behind the start line (to overcome the head-on collision risk of pilots the wrong side of the line trying to get back) and 20 minute, 10 minute, 5 minute, 2 minute, one minute, 30 second and a 10, 9, 8, through to 3, 2, 1, GO radio calls.
The trackers have their own internal GPS time, but so do the organising personnel whose clocks are not always identical. It is quite a task for one person for one class, but do-able. When a second class is being launched, they also have a series of calls that need to be made, and so does the third class.
These time calls over the radio of necessity almost always overlap. So for example, a 20 minute call for one class that launched last at the back of the grid could be, and often was, exactly the same time as the 10 minute call for a second class and, just to make things worse, it was also the exact same time as the “3, 2, 1, GO” call for the first class that was launched and whose gate was now due to open. This made keeping track of what time was whose class a nightmare and having multiple personnel for different classes on the radio just focused on their class calls didn’t really help very much. We took an axe to the number of time calls that were made and prioritised whichever class was closest to their start time, but the result still meant missed times over the radio and a suboptimal result despite the heroic efforts of the many radio operators.
We found that the on-field calling on hand-held radios gave very poor reception, and not just because of the ground wind or tug noise affecting clarity. So instead, as CD, I would phone the radio operator(s) back on the base station radio at the clubhouse away from the noise and activity of the grid advising them the start time of each class, from which they could work out the times for the different radio calls for each class. Again, not ideal, but we made it sort of work.
Managing that challenge brings me to the ‘radio chatter’ issue of a GP start. We had issued a Notam for the airfield and tasking area where we stated all gliders and tugs and organisers would use the Benalla CTAF frequency for all calls and gliders would change to the gaggle frequency when they exited the CTAF at 10 miles on task. This seemed sensible and reasonable to have everyone on the same radio frequency in the same area. As they say in the classics, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, we discovered in the first few days of the comp that the CTAF was absolutely jam packed with radio calls. Initially we had the tugs receiving ‘take up slack’ and ‘all out’ calls on the CTAF, and then, of course, the tugs were also making their downwind, base and final calls on the CTAF. On top of this, gliders called their circuit intentions for relights and meanwhile the start gate calls for all three classes were going as well on top of every other call. So the first 90 minutes or so from first launch was hectic on the radio.
Then many pilots started turning back as the weather on task was horrible for the first day of the comp and were calling in-bound to the airfield on the CTAF, which went on for another hour or so. For over two and a half hours the CTAF frequency was literally clogged up. Pilots were unintentionally talking over each other, the grid based radio calls had poor reception and needed repeating, those gaggling before the start couldn’t make safety calls to fellow pilots about where they were in the weak thermals relative to each other, plus all the start gate calls for the three classes overlapping, and given the safety issue of the deteriorating weather, if indeed the day for their particular class had been cancelled or not. As it turned out, all classes were cancelled for that day.
Keeping all traffic on the CTAF was deemed essential, not only because that’s what we had said on the Notam, but for safety reasons. Having the gliders after launch on the gaggle frequency while in the CTAF was not an appropriate option. The solution was to remove all the launch radio broadcasts by having a forward launch marshal giving hand signals to the tugs for take-up slack and all out. That helped a lot. As I said earlier, we also used the base radio for the start gate calls and took an axe to the start gate script, significantly reducing the radio calls made. That seemed to give everyone enough space on the CTAF frequency to make any essential calls as needed.
If a GP style race had only one class and they had their start gate over the airfield, apart from the spectacle, it had the benefit of making towing turn-around times quicker as the tugs didn’t have far to go and it made relights safer and easier as the tug release zone was directly over the airfield. With multiple classes however, class start gates needed to be separated so starting gliders did not conflict with non-starting gliders of a different class. In a non-GP format, this is not usually a problem, as gliders can start the task whenever they chose after the start gate opens.
Benalla Aircraft Carrier
This brings me to the observation that some airfields are better suited to GP format comps than others. If you have a field way out of town surrounded by nice, big, landable paddocks, the risk is very different to an airfield close to a built up area, such as Benalla or Gawler. Indeed, it was observed that Benalla airfield pretty much resembles an aircraft carrier on the landscape, with the only semi-feasible outlanding locations to the east, none to the west where the town is, and pretty useless options to the north and south.
This means that start gates should be as close to the airfield as practical, but the waypoint database only offered limited options with some of the nearest alternate start gate locations 10 to 15km from the airfield. In good flying conditions, this is less of an issue. But if the weather is poor or fickle, as was the case for the VSA 2022 Comp, then unless a pilot was able to almost immediately secure reliable lift off tow, they would have to start returning to the Benalla aircraft carrier almost immediately for the chance of a relight or else land out in difficult conditions and lose all points for the day.
If the wind is strong, as it was at the beginning of the week, the idea was to tow upwind of the start location so pilots could thermal up to the start gate, but the waypoint options as start gate locations didn’t always permit this. Needless to say, a distant start gate location also meant the tug was at 2,000ft AGL long before actually reaching the start gate, which understandably caused some angst among pilots. It also had the unhappy consequence of making tow patterns much longer, more expensive and as a result it took longer to get the fleet into the air even with four tugs flat out.
The other ‘aircraft carrier’ issue that Benalla faced with sub-typical weather at the start of the week was that finish line direction options were very limited, essentially only from the east, and the minimum finish circle height in windy conditions could conspire to make finishes less safe than is optimal. Under competitive pressure, ‘get-home-itis’ could tempt pilots to make poor final glide decisions, made worse by the poor outlanding options around the Benalla aircraft carrier. These issues would be the same for GP and non-GP format comps, but the GP points scoring system potentially punishes pilots more harshly.
That fact leads to the benefits of the scoring system using the Skyrace trackers. The trackers are simple devices that provide pilots with an altitude and ground speed indication as well as some basic navigation. They also send altitude, speed and position data via the mobile network back to the livegliding servers, but it is worth noting that they don’t display the time, nor do they give an indication that the gate has opened. This would be useful additional features to the trackers, if achievable, especially where there are multiple classes of gliders in the air at the same time.
The scoring system for a GP format comp is mainly a matter or using livegliding.com, which consumes the tracker data and does the real time scoring and any penalty calculation automatically. As the software significantly reduces the scoring workload, this is a huge boon to the competition’s scorer, and should make it simpler to find volunteers for this often unappreciated but vital role. That is a scorer’s point of view of course! It also means that by the time the last glider has crossed the finish line, the scores for that day are already known and will be live online for pilots to see.
Fun, Safe, Fair
These are the main issues I consider relevant to considering whether a GP style comp is appropriate for your next competition. No doubt, others will have opposing views on different aspects of what I have said, or think I should have included or given more prominence to some other issues, and that’s fine with me. I also remind readers of the first sentence of my article here.
My motto for the VSA 2022 Comp was ‘have fun, fly safe, play fair’. I also described the modified GP style format that we used as an experiment, and it was. There were bumps in the road and not everything was perfect, but to the great credit of all those involved – both the competitors and the great band of people who organised the comp and made it happen – I think we collectively overcame the challenges that the weather and a GP style format at Benalla threw up during the course of the week. There were over 60 people at the Winners’ Dinner, where the Mayor of Benalla presented the winning pilots with the VSA’s perpetual trophies for each class. The bar also did a brisk trade that night.
Overall, I think everyone had fun, flew safe and played fair, so that is not a bad result.