Inaugurated in 1981, the F1 Powerboat World Championship is similar to F1 car racing and similar rules apply. Each F1 Powerboat race lasts approximately 45 minutes following a circuit marked out in a selected stretch of water, usually a lake, river, 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 all-important allocation of championship points.
The sport is governed by the Monaco based U.I.M. Union Internationale Motonautique (International Power boating Association). Nicolo di San Germano has been responsible for promoting the F1 World Championship since 1993 and has expanded the sport’s geographical reach and its global stature.
In 2006, 12 different teams worked tirelessly throughout the year to ensure that during each Grand Prix their 24 drivers (representing 15 different nationalities) could rely on the latest technology in their fight for the World Championship.
Picture the scene: 24 sleek, powerful, and lightweight catamarans line up at the start pontoon. Inside each cockpit sits a lone individual peering through his tiny windscreen. One hand grasps the steering wheel while the other stands poised over the start button. The tension inside the cockpit is intense as the pilot awaits the crucial start. Beyond the cockpit, an eerie silence descends over the entire arena all attention fixed on the start.
No sooner does the wait end than 10,000hp of highly tuned brute power bursts into life sending the fleet of 24 screaming towards the first corner leaving nothing but a glorious fountain of white spray in its wake.
However, with the thrilling high-speed action comes the risk of ruin as drivers endure brain-numbing G-forces - their rigs taking hairpin turns at over 90mph while they dice deck to deck in often zero visibility.
How does this compare to F1 motor racing? Imagine driving a Formula One car at 225 kph through a freshly ploughed field and you’d be close: such are the torturous conditions F1 Powerboat drivers contend with week in, week out. These gladiators put their lives on the line every time they step into the cockpit searching for the most elusive and most coveted award… the World Championship.
Over the last three decades, Formula One powerboats have attracted a worldwide audience of millions. Few would argue that the sight of these awesome machines skimming across the water’s surface at speeds of up to 225 kph is a truly breathtaking spectacle.
While today’s F1 catamarans bear a striking resemblance to those in action throughout the 1980’s there is a world of difference in terms of driver protection and general safety. Earlier boats were constructed from thin plywood. They would reach phenomenal speeds but the driver sitting in an exposed cockpit - would face a high probability of death should he suffer an accident.
During one particularly tragic season the sport suffered several fatalities and serious injuries. British F1 designer, boat builder and racer Chris Hodges concluded that unless more time and effort was devoted to safety measures he would have very few friends left alive.
Hodges set about improving the situation and constructed a safety cell that was produced from an immensely strong composite material. Instead of the cockpit being part of the main structure Hodges’ capsule was separate and was fitted to the hulls and centre section. For the first time drivers were actually strapped into their seats. The idea was that if a craft was involved in an accident, the timber hulls could break up and absorb the impact forces while the driver remained well protected inside his cell.
Ironically, several pilots were opposed to this new device but after it successfully proved itself in several major crashes, the UIM called for it to be compulsory. British builder Dave Burgess introduced canopies in the early 1990’s that made cockpits fully enclosed. Although not built to withstand a major impact, the canopy did protect the driver from the full force of water if his craft nose-dived.
In the late 1990’s further developments saw the introduction of an airbag in the cockpit that would inflate in a crash to ensure the capsule wouldn’t sink before rescue crews could attend.
Over the years, F1 boat construction has been developed and today few craft are built of timber instead of modern composites. While F1 Powerboat racing is still a dangerous sport by any standards, driver welfare has been improved to such a degree that while craft are still involved in spectacular and horrifying accidents, the unlucky victim usually swims away unscathed.
For those watching an F1 powerboat Grand Prix for the first time, the usual question is how an earth do these boats stick to the water at such high speeds?
The simple answer is they don’t stick to the water - in fact just the opposite. Working on the same principle as an aircraft wing, the twin hulls lift out of the water when power is applied and a cushion of air is trapped between the two hulls. The craft rides on this cushion.
Inside the capsule of today’s F1 outfit, the pilot has very little to keep him company. He looks at a quickly detachable steering wheel, a rev counter, a foot throttle, yellow and red lights (which are operated by crew chiefs ashore to warn of danger on the course), a fuel pump switch, and the all important yellow start button.
Before obtaining a Super License to drive an F1 boat, drivers undergo a stringent medical and also an immersion test. This involves being strapped into a mock F1 cockpit. The cell is flipped over and the driver has to make his escape while being judged by safety officials.
Once awarded a license to race in F1, a novice then starts the long haul to stardom and there is ample evidence to show there is no easy route to the top. Too much enthusiasm spells disaster as the lightweight outfits leave little room for error. Too much caution though, and you are permanent back marker.
Although Guido Cappellini can now boast a record of 9 world titles, his rise to the top has been a long and often painful process. It took him five years before he won his first F1 race. Indeed in his early years he was nicknamed ‘Crashalini’ as he barrel-rolled his boats on a regular basis. However that learning curve proved invaluable, as his experience has led to him becoming one of the world’s leading builders of F1 boats.
What does the future promise for F1 Powerboat racing? In terms of safety, there is always room for improvement as Nicolo di San Germano and the U.I.M. work closely to find those improvements. In 2003 the HANS (Head and Neck Safety) device was introduced to the sport to protect the driver from serious injury in the case of an accident.
“Safety is one of my key priorities,” explained di San Germano. “F1 Powerboat safety officers work closely with the U.I.M. to make the sport safer. Since the 1980s we have adopted many measures to improve safety, including: safer cockpits with flexible and shock-absorbing ‘pickle fork’ construction; air-bag crash protection systems; and the HANS (Head and Neck Safety) device.”
“The number of fatal accidents has decreased, but a risk is always present and so research for improved safety is a never-ending effort,” he added.
Talks are currently underway with motor racing engine makers with a view to introduce 4 stroke inboard engines into F1 but many problems have to be overcome before we see a Porsche or BMW engine on the start line.
The current power plant in F1 is a remarkable piece of engineering when you consider what is has to endure throughout a Grand Prix. It sits silently on the start grid until the red lights are switched off. The start button is pressed and within a fraction of a second it’s spinning at 9600rpm and pumping out 400hp. Over 50 laps its throttle remains on full power for much of the time even when turning up to 5 or 6 corners on each lap. If conditions are rough, the propeller often leaves the water which puts mechanical components, and drivers under increased stress.