With the 2017 UIM World F1 season drawing to a close, and the possibility of a new champion being crowned in December, it seems as good a time as any to revisit the origins of the premier league of formula powerboat racing and review its progression over the last 40 years.
A significant highlight for 2018 is that two new venues are returning to the F1 calendar – London and India, and it’s particularly exciting to anticipate the UK’s capital hosting a round of World F1 as it’s been many years since we heard the exhausts of F1 engines in a dock off The Old Father Thames. The other grand prix fixtures in next year’s series are Portugal, France, UAE, China and India where we are guaranteed huge crowds as tens of thousands turned out when the F1 fleet visited Mumbai in early 2000. The F1 tour has travelled the world since its formation in the early 80s with grand prix events in Russia, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Switzerland, Italy, France, Great Britain, Germany, India, Singapore, Latvia, Southern Ireland, UAE, Qatar, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and America.
The Formula 1 Powerboat World Championship is an international racing competition for powerboats organised by the Union Internationale Motonautique (UIM) and currently promoted by H2o Racing, hence it often being referred to as F1H2O. It is the highest class of inshore powerboat racing in the world, and as such, with it sharing the title of F1, is similar to Formula One car racing. Each race lasts approximately 45 minutes following a circuit marked out in a selected stretch of water, usually a lake, river, dock, or sheltered bay. Qualifying periods decide the formation of the grid, and timing equipment records the performance of competitors to decide the final classification and allocation of championship points.
The concept of a single unified championship for inshore powerboats had been conceived in 1978 when David Parkinson, an experienced PR manager, was offered the support of Mercury Marine, one of his clients, if he could establish such a series. The concept became the Canon Trophy, sponsored by another of Parkinson’s clients, Canon Inc.
A steady escalation in engine development between Mercury and arch-rival OMC was already underway as the Canon Trophy was formed, and this arms race ultimately resulted in massively powerful 3.5-litre (210 in3 ) V8 engines being used, and led to the creation of the OZ class. Each manufacturer offered as many as half a dozen drivers with a free supply of these OZ class engines in a bid to succeed. The OZ engines differed from the ON class which was centred around a standard 2-litre capacity, and consequently OZ machines, with their superior power, swept all before them. Matters came to a head when, in an attempt to extract an even greater advantage, Renato Molinari turned up with two engines on the back of his boat at the Italian Grand Prix. A petition was signed by 28 drivers in 1980 to outlaw the OZ boats and the Formula ON Drivers Association (FONDA) was born. Mercury withdrew their T4 engine and the split was confirmed. OZ and ON classes would have their own championships in 1981.
Somewhat understandably, both championships attempted to use the title of Formula 1 to market themselves as the pinnacle of powerboat racing. For much of 1981 however, it was largely irrelevant. John Player had chosen to support the OMC-powered OZ championship, giving it not only an advantage in speed and technology, but also marketing. The championship was still in its early stages with a small grid, but FONDA’s ON class wasn’t much better either and was effectively the remains of the Canon Trophy. Journalists of the period continued to use the familiar terms of ON and OZ to avoid confusion, and it was only when the UIM stepped in to sort out the mess that resulted in the OZ class being awarded Formula 1 status, with the ON class given the consolation title of ‘World Grand Prix’. Thus, with the backing of the drivers’ association behind it, the FONDA World Grand Prix Series entered into a period of being overshadowed by its bigger, faster brother, the Formula 1 World Series.
Tom Percival racing ‘John Player Special’ on Lake Como in 1982
The world’s most successful F1 driver/builder Renato Molinari 1987
Jon Jones was one of the first to use the 2 litre Mercury in the FONDA Series
By bringing together the financial support and marketing ability of John Player Special, as well as the clarity and consistency of a championship with an established event structure, one which focused on sprint races rather than a mixture that included endurance races in previous years, the category allowed for a relatively stable environment in which the top powerboat teams and drivers could compete. A fixed points system made comprehension easy for spectators, with it matching its motor racing equivalent with 9, 6, 4, 3, 2, and finally 1 point on offer for the top six finishers.
Safety was always looming large in the background of the F1 series. The ever-increasing speeds of the 3.5-litre V8s, as OMC continued to refine them, meant that surviving a crash was becoming less and less likely. In 1984 matters reached a tragic conclusion when Tom Percival was the last of four drivers to lose their lives in the space of a matter of months. Cees van der Velden pulled his three-boat Benson & Hedges-backed team out of the final three races of the season, and Carlsberg cancelled their partnership with Roger Jenkins having told the 1982 champion, “Another death or serious injury, and they were out.” OMC were able to pull together a depleted field to see out the season, but the writing was on the wall. It was the beginning of the end for Formula 1 as the OZ class.
Keen to keep the championship running however, OMC gave the F1 World Series a facelift. With Benson & Hedges vacating the series’ title sponsorship, in came Champion to create the Champion Spark Plug F1 World Series, and a new Belgian promoter, Pro One, was tasked with turning the series around. Prize money was significantly increased to attract drivers, and a greater presence in the United States was sought. Boat designer Chris Hodges introduced the first iteration of his safety cell which paved the way for a revolution in boat safety, and Bob Spalding won the title driving for the Percival Hodges team.
On the outside, it appeared as if Formula 1 was set for a new period of growth, until OMC uncovered the level of spending that Pro One had undertaken to raise the profile of the championship. Rumours suggested the promoter had spent the promotion budget for the next three years in a single season, and figures of $4–5 million were passed around. OMC called time on the whole European operation at the end of 1985, and in 1986, based solely in North America, the F1 World Series was wound down before it was completely assimilated into the domestic US championship.
From 1987 to 1989, there was no official Formula 1 championship. The FONDA World Grand Prix Series continued to operate with title sponsorship from Budweiser and benefitted from F1’s demise in Europe as drivers moved back over. In simple terms Mercury’s two litre formula had outlasted OMC’s monster 3.5-litre V8s, but the reality was far more complex than that. In the United States, Formula 1 lived on, but as far as the world stage was concerned, the powerboat community once again turned to David Parkinson, who having established the Canon Trophy back in 1978, was still at the helm of the FONDA series into which it had evolved. With no other challenger unlike ten years previously, the UIM reinstated the Formula 1 category to World Championship status and in 1990 the FONDA World Grand Prix Series became the Formula 1 World Championship.
David Parkinson continued to manage and promote the championship until the end of 1993, at which point he handed over to Nicolo di San Germano, who continues to lead the series to the present day together with his three sons Casamiro, Raimondo and Paolo. Di San Germano has overseen a period of continued improvements in driver safety, managed the championship through multiple economic down turns, and seen a shift in focus for the series away from Europe towards the Middle East and Asia, driven by a need for financial stability. The cost has been a heavy one in the eyes of many traditional fans based in Europe as calendars and grid sizes have shrunk, but the attraction remains and the series will continue to be represented in Europe with events in Portugal and France.
Today’s F1 powerboat racing is a series of Grand Prix style events each season, in which teams compete around the world. The races are longer than most powerboat races at approximately 45 minutes, but still shorter than many car races, and take place along a track of approximately 350 meters with multiple turns, over which the boats can reach 250 kilometers per hour (155 mph).
The F1 boats are tunnel hull catamarans that are capable of both high speed and exceptional manoeuvrability. Overall, the boats weigh 860 pounds (390 kilogrammes), including 260 pounds (118 kilograms) of engine. They are 20 feet (6 metres) long and seven feet (2 metres) wide, keeping weight low through extensive use of carbon fiber and kevlar in their construction. The tunnel hull design creates aerodynamic lift due to a ‘wing’ formed by the deck and under surface of the hull. This increases lift and reduces drag, so that at speed only a few inches of the boat touches the water, leading to the high speed possible with these hulls.
Despite considerable time and investment in the four-stroke technology together with electric for F1 boats, the tried and tested 2 stroke engines are still favoured by all the teams currently racing in the series. The decades-old Mercury V6 two-stroke engines that have dominated the sport since the very start, have been upgraded from 2 litres to 2.5 litres which burn 100 litres of Avgas at a rate of 120 litres (32 gallons) per hour, and generate over 400 horsepower at 10,500 rpm. This engine can propel the boats to 100 km/h (62 mph) in less than two seconds, and to a maximum speed of over 250 km/h (155 mph).
Although F1 boats have not changed much in appearance since the early days, the construction and safety has been dramatically improved from the original open-cockpit plywood boats. The first major development was the hard composite cockpit capsule designed to break away from the rest of the boat in a crash. This also inaugurated the practice of securing the drivers to their seats with a harness. First developed by designer and racer Chris Hodges, this system was optional for a time due to the initial opposition of the drivers but, after it was accredited to saving several drivers in major crashes, the UIM mandated it for all boats. In the early 1990s F1 boat builder Dave Burgess introduced a canopy that fully enclosed the cockpit to protect the driver from the full force of water in a nose-dive, and in the late 1990s boat builder DAC introduced an airbag situated behind the driver to prevent the cockpit from completely submerging if the boat flips.
These specific changes in safety features were also accompanied by a progression of lighter and stronger composite hulls which further reduced the hazards of racing. F1 drivers now also wear a HANS Head and Neck Restraint device similar to that worn by their Formula One automobile racing counterparts to help prevent head and neck injuries. Further safety features that have been introduced include collapsible pickle forks that would deform rather than penetrate another hull on impact, and as from the 2007 season, all boats were required to have a protective crash box installed to protect the driver from a side-on collision (T-bone).
Before obtaining a Super License to drive an F1 boat, drivers undergo a stringent medical and also an immersion test procedure which involves being strapped into a mock cockpit which is submerged and flipped over whilst the driver has to make his escape under the watchful eye of a safety team.
The future of the current UIM World F1 series looks healthy with drivers from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Great Britain, Finland, Italy, US, China, Poland and France, and new venues for 2018 in GB and India. Hopefully Europe will play a bigger part in the championship calendar in the future, particularly Italy, which was, like GB, one of the pioneering nations in F1 powerboat racing.