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What’s it like chasing an F1 car with a 300kph drone? We asked its pilot

In an astonishing world first, a drone managed to reach speeds of 300kph+ to keep up with Max Verstappen's Formula One car for an entire lap. Here, the flying machine's pilot explains how he did it.
Written by Tom Ward
5 min readPublished on
On February 13 2024, Shaggy, aka Ralph Hogenbirk of the Dutch Drone Gods, achieved what was thought impossible. On a rainy morning at the UK's Silverstone Circuit, his custom-built Red Bull Drone 1 – max speed 350kph – followed Oracle Red Bull Racing’s brand-new F1 car, the RB20, for an entire lap. This feat was a first not only in drone tech, but in F1 history. Watch its incredible flight around the track in the video above.
Shaggy himself is no stranger to fast drones – he’s a staple in the Drone Racing League and has filmed the frantic and frenetic Red Bull Valparaíso Cerro Abajo downhill. But this was something else entirely. Not only would he have to build the drone himself, he’d be going head to head with Oracle Red Bull Racing’s best driver in the form of Max Verstappen. And when the F1 world no. 1 finally came face-to-face with the machine, he was blown away, commenting, "This could change how people watch Formula 1."
Ralph Hogenbirk is ready for operating the drone from a virtual space

The Dutch Drone God Shaggy

© Joerg Mitter/Limex Images

This could change how people watch Formula 1
“You can’t help but be really, really impressed… just the visual speed of it actually going around. It just ‘zooms’ and disappears. It’s really impressive,” said David Coulthard, watching from the sidelines as Shaggy’s creation went head to head with Verstappen.
So here's exactly what happened! Find out below how the first ever drone pilot vs F1 driver experience went down.

The weather was so rainy that you had one shot to get this right. No pressure, then?

Shaggy: It was hectic. We did film with Formula One cars during testing, so in some ways we knew what to expect. On the actual day, we only had one shot and there was lots of spray coming from the car which made things harder. It’s a brand-new car and a different driver to who we practised with, so we had no idea what the speed is going to be, no idea what the breaking points are going to be. It was a lot of adapting for that one shot and just improvising and yeah, really applying everything we practised.

Max Verstappen was so impressed he said: “I didn’t recognise the drone; I didn’t know it was following me whilst driving and it was very close to me in some places, so it’s great to see.” What was your experience?

Using the drone view goggles is maybe a bit harder than seeing the track from a car, despite the bird’s eye view. Max can see the road exactly; he can see the 150 mark and 100-metre mark and brake precisely. I have my view from above, watching him, so I have to focus fully on the car. I don't know what his braking point will be, so I’m always having to react to what the car is doing.

The drone can go up to 350kph and accelerates at twice the speed of an F1 car.

Max Verstappen checking out his race partner

© Joerg Mitter/Limex Images

And you aren’t just trying to keep up, you have two 4k cameras to think about, too. Was it difficult to think about all of that, at such high speeds?

For me, it's probably similar to driving a fast car in that you have to just focus on what you're doing and not fully think about the kind of speeds you're doing. I know that it I go faster, the controls change and it becomes more sensitive, so I have to keep that in mind in order to fly the drone properly. Otherwise, I’m just responding to what the car is doing, focusing on keeping it in frame.”

Driving an F1 car is incredibly physical. Was there a physical side to flying the drone?

It’s not quite the same thing. In terms of adrenaline, I have to stay reasonably calm, but that's hard to do. I was quite nervous. A lot of pilots do have shaky fingers, but my mind feels like it’s in the drone. I’m fully connected, it’s like an out-of-body experience. There is some adrenaline even though I’m sitting in my chair, not moving.

The drone keeps pace for an entire lap – a first not only in drone tech, but in F1 history.

The Red Bull Drone 1 keeps pace with Oracle Red Bull Racing’s F1 car

© Joerg Mitter/Limex Images

You’re not just thinking about one plane of motion, like the driver, you’re going up and down too. How does that impact your job?

I’m aways adjusting the altitude based on on the situation. On the straights, I go a little bit higher above. You have air coming off the back wing of the car so you want to stay above that. Usually I’m staying maybe 10 to 20 metres above the track. In the corners the car slows down so I dive down to get closer to the car to get a better shot. I might be just one or two metres above the car at some point.

Do you meditate at all to help focus?

I’m not really into meditation, although I like the ways of thinking and the teachings from it. For me, focus is about knowing exactly what the drone could do each situation and knowing what I can do in each situation. And then just forcing myself to stay calm and don't let the nervousness leak through. It’s about blocking out all of the distractions from outside and not letting anything else, you know, bother me at that moment.

Powerful: Top speed is 350kph, with an acceleration of 100-300kph in just two seconds.

The Red Bull Drone 1's soul

© Joerg Mitter/Limex Images

What’s next?

Even though this drone looks really cool, and it's working like it's intended to, there's a lot more we can do, obviously. I think one of the things we should do is try to get a high-quality live video feed from it, so we can use it for live streaming. And then it's further testing and proving that this drone is safe, reliable. It would be cool to have one drone covering the track in live races, but maybe in the future we will have multiple drones. Who knows?

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Max Verstappen

The son of former Formula One driver Jos Verstappen, Max Verstappen is the youngest race-winner in F1 history and a three-time world champion.

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