ABU DHABI // The return of the Red Bull Air Race captivated thousands of spectators all along the Corniche on Friday afternoon.

The race’s qualifying day, in which 12 master pilots competed to determine their starting positions for Saturday’s race, attracted avid fans of the sport, alongside those who know nothing about it but came along to experience the thrill.

Among the latter group was Jason Sotomil, 27, from the Philippines.

“It is definitely something different,” said the graphic designer, who was watching from a spot at the breakwater, close to Marina Mall, with his friend, Ronald Benziger.

“It is a pretty neat event,” said Mr Benziger, an engineer from India. “There is a one-second difference between the first and the sixth man in the race. It is a pretty tough sport.”

The pilots performed a series of high-speed manoeuvres through 25-metre-high pylons along the waters of the Corniche.

Each of the competitors was allowed to complete two laps around the track, with the fastest time counting. On Saturday, the contenders will first be narrowed down to the fastest eight, and then the four best will compete in the final round.

For the first time in the event, spectators were treated to the Challenger Cup, where eight new pilots from seven countries raced to gain experience and hone their low-altitude flying skills.

Many of the spectators were not only watching the hair-raising manoeuvres and acrobatic displays but also photographing them.

Among them was Klent Vizcara, 28, an aerial mechanic from the Philippines. Along with three friends, he had cycled along the Corniche at 1pm, looking for the best spot to set up his camera.

“It has been great. Good weather, it is not too hot, and good pictures,” he said.

Some of the spectators enjoyed a prime view on the beach beside the race grandstand.

Cameras and phones pointed to the sky as the crowd awaited the appearance of the Red Bull Skydive Team, who landed on a small stretch of beach just metres away.

Selwyn Macwan, 43, was recording the stunt on his iPad, while his wife Nancy, 40, took photos. The Indian couple were watching the race with their 10-year-old daughter, Kristine.

“We love taking pictures,” said Mrs Macwan, a health and safety engineer. “It is not every day you come across something like this.”

The family were pleased to be able to watch the event up close.

“It is something really good that they did for us, the general public,” said Mrs Macwan.

The crowds were also treated to an aerial display by Al Fursan, or The Knights, the UAE Air Force’s aerobatic display team.

Demonstrating precision, speed and control, the team of seven first flew in formation, twisting and turning in the air at speeds of up to 300kph, flying as close as just two metres from each other.

Spectators also enjoyed a solo performance by one of the pilots as the remaining six zipped through, releasing coloured smoke, making shapes such as a palm tree and a heart in the UAE national colours.

The team’s final routine also paid homage to the UAE as the group of six pilots flew in straight line, releasing white, green and black smoke, with the seventh plane twirling around their trails, releasing red smoke.

The routine impressed commercial pilot Pablo Fraga and his wife Lauren, who holds a private pilot’s licence. The couple watched the event from the race grandstand.

“It was very good, especially the smoke part,” he said. “We have seen a lot of air shows and these pilots are very good.”

The couple, who travelled to Abu Dhabi from Hong Kong especially for the race, said they were impressed by what they had seen so far.

“We have seen them online before but this is the first time we are watching an actual live race,” he said. “It has been really good.”