Powerboats: machines that make F1 cars look sluggish

Powerboats can outaccelerate their dry-land cousins and take hairpins at 150kph – and they don’t have any brakes.

Team Abu Dhabi's Thani al Qamzi still has a shot at winning the drivers' championship for the first time. 
Vittorio Ubertone / Idea Marketing
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It is as misunderstood as it is magnificent; as bewildering as it is breathtaking. Formula One powerboat racing is the pinnacle of international marine-based motorsport and yet remains ignored by the majority of the population - despite the country hosting two of the World Championship season's eight rounds.

F1H20 - as it has come to be known since its creation in 1981 - was once likened to "driving an F1 car at full speed over a ploughed field" and, in terms of acceleration, powerboats are unrivalled not only on the azure aqua, but also in motorsport in general.

Lewis Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes F1 car, for instance, can reach 160kph in around 6.3 seconds, but the tunnel-hull catamaran driven in F1H20 comfortably eclipses that by reaching the same speed in just four seconds.

Regulated by the Union Internationale Motonautique (UIM), F1 powerboats reach speeds in excess of 225kph and the pilots attack hairpins at 150kph. As they battle at high speed with waves and wakes, they do so without brakes or shifting gears. High-speed jet-skis they are most definitely not.

With powerboats offering faster acceleration and the sport's grands prix providing better views of the entire race - as well as free tickets - there is little reason why the marine code should not be challenging its asphalt cousin.

But Nasser al Dhaheri, the race organiser for this weekend's grand prix in the capital, knows F1H20 is unlikely to ever catch Bernie Ecclestone's motorsport circus.

"Formula One is much more famous and is a factory competition," he said. "You have names such as Ferrari and Mercedes competing, and famous drivers too.

"The public relations department of F1 is huge and when you consider the money, the ideas and marketing, you cannot even compare the two, really. But we are trying to develop people's knowledge of powerboats. If we can get people to understand the sport, then we can grow."

Al Dhaheri is under no illusions, yet believes this weekend's Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi can draw almost as many fans as the 50,000 spectators who watched the F1 at the Yas Marina Circuit last month.

"There are people in this country who have a real interest in powerboats," al Dhaheri said. "We have viewing areas all around the Corniche and we have a grandstand that seats 2,000 people. Last year we had between 30,000 and 40,000 people come to watch and this year we expect the same again."

Those who watch from the beach or the shores of the Arabian Gulf will likely not appreciate a few key observations made possible when up close and personal with a tunnel-hull catamaran.

The first thing you notice when the shell-like Kevlar roof clamps down to envelope you inside the cockpit capsule of an F1 powerboat is not merely that it is cramped - incredibly cramped - and it is also not that the visibility is minimal courtesy of only a small sliver of Perspex.

Neither is it that your seatbelt straps your body up as tight as your lungs allow, but rather, unlike an F1 race car where the driver's head is secured to protect them from the neck strain that comes with experiencing five or six Gs of gravitational force, inside the cockpit of a powerboat, your head simply sits perched on your shoulders, supported by little more than a starched collar.

"Yes, your head gets thrown around pretty bad," conceded Thani al Qamzi with the kind of fearless smile evident in the majority of high-speed sportsmen. "Sometimes it takes me a day or so to get rid of the pain from my neck."

Al Qamzi, together with childhood friend and teammate Ahmed al Hameli, make the foundations of Team Abu Dhabi, based out of the UAE capital's International Marine Sports Club. The team is managed by Scott Gillman, a Californian with four world championship titles in his locker, and together they travel the world competing against an international field made up of pilots from, among other places, Italy, Finland and the United States.

Today sees the start of qualifying for tomorrow's penultimate race of the season where al Qamzi, 32, is chasing his first world title. He trails America's Jay Price, the championship leader, by 19 points, but with 20 points awarded for a victory, the Emirati is still in the running. Just.

"Thani has, for the past three years, been within 15 points of the championship lead and this year he is right up there again," Gillman said. "He finished second last year and we are hoping this time he can go one better, but it will be tough."

In last weekend's race in Doha, al Qamzi and al Hameli both found their hopes hit by technical issues resulting in them starting the race in 18th and 16th places respectively. Yet, the speed of their boats shone through and they managed to recover to finish amid the points. "Things went OK in Doha," Gillman said. "Ahmed had a mechanical failure in qualifying so had to start at the back of the field, but did excellent to finish fourth. And it was the same situation with Thani, who finished sixth. Thani still has an opportunity to win the championship, but it is a big task now and really he needs to win this weekend."

Al Qamzi, however, is refusing to look at the championship standings, instead opting simply to focus on his performances in the cockpit.

"At the end of the season we will see where I am," al Qamzi said. "I will try my best to get some points in the championship. If I finished second again I would be happy, but, of course, first is better. It is my goal to be world champion. I think this is important. It is not only important for me though - the sport is growing and for my country to be home to the world champion would be very special."

With races in Finland, Russia, Tunisia and Guatemala rumoured to be ready to join the 2011 calendar, global expansion is evident.

And it makes sense. In a climate where finances are tight and infrastructure has to offer a legacy, an F1 Powerboats track is relatively simple: wherever there is water, there can be a circuit. And for a relatively reasonable price it can be moved and removed at will.

A standard grand prix lasts for 50 laps of around 2,000 metres and sees each of the 24 boats starting on the dock, before accelerating in congested waters for 400 to 600 metres until they reach the first inflatable buoy - the most treacherous turn of the course.

"The start is the most dangerous because of the traffic," said al Hameli, sitting in an office at the marine sports club, where, above him, framed and nailed to the wall, is a sequence of three photographs showing a powerboat gradually disintegrating in the air following a high-velocity crash.

The pilot survived, but al Qamzi's cousin, Mohammad al Mehairi, was not so fortunate last year when his boat flipped in the water off the coast of Dubai. He and fellow Victory Team pilot Jean Marc Sanchez were pronounced dead on arrival after being rushed to hospital.

"If you can get past the first corner in a good position then you are happy. Otherwise, it can be very bad," al Hameli added.

Qualifying to decide who begins on pole, and thus who secures the best position to tackle the hazardous first turn, takes place today at 3pm. The race begins tomorrow at 3.30pm. Those with faint hearts may be inclined to stay at home.


9.20am–9.40am. Free practice F-4S
9.50pm–10.10am. Timed trials F-4S
10.30am–11.30am. Free practice F1
1.30pm–1.50. F-4S race 1
3pm–4pm Timed trials F1

9.15am–10.15am. Free practice F-4S
9.50am–10.10am. Timed trials F-4S
10.30am–11.30am. Free practice F1
1.30pm–1.50pm. F-4S race 2
3.30–4.15. Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi

UIM F1 driver standings

Driver    Team    Points

1. Jay Price     Qatar F1 Team    68 pts
2. Francesco Cantando     Singha F1 Racing Team    59 pts             
2. Alex Carella     Team Mad Croc    59 pts
2. Sami Selio     Team Mad Croc    59 pts                       
5. Thani al Qamzi     Team Abu Dhabi     49 pts                  
6. Pierre Lundin     CTIC China Team     33 pts
7. Ahmed al Hameli     Team Abu Dhabi      29 pts
8. Phillipe Chiappe     CTIC China Team      19 pts
9. Tim Seebold    Team Skydive Dubai       16 pts
10. Jonas Andersson    Team Azerbaijan             13 pts

Team AD results, remaining fixtures

Results    Al Qamzi    Al Hameli
Portimao, Portugal                   Third (12 pts)                                            First (20 pts)
St Petersburg, Russia               Fourth (9)                                                            Retired
Linyi, China                                 Eighth (3)                                                            Retired
Liuzhou, China                            Second (15)                                                        Retired
Shenzhen, China                        Sixth (5)                                                               Retired
Doha, Qatar                                 Sixth (5)                                                          Fourth (9)
Remaining races
Abu Dhabi                                   Saturday                                                                 
Sharjah                                        December 10