Bristol's Floating Harbour became the venue for the premier circuit powerboat race, attracting top drivers from all over the world. It ran from 1972 to 1990. From 1977, the most coveted award in powerboat racing, the solid gold Duke of York Trophy was awarded to the overall winner of the Embassy Grand Prix. King George VI first presented this award in 1924. The first winner of the trophy, Count Johnston Noad, was at Bristol to present it to the 1977 race winner, Renato Molinari.
The trial event took place on 5 March 1972 in the historic Bristol City Docks. It was so successful that everyone concerned gave the thumbs up to an International powerboat race, to take place on July 8 and 9 1972. Over 200,000 turned out to watch the inaugural event.
W D and H O Wills, a business closely linked with Bristol’s history gave full support and financial backing to the event, which was organised by the Cotswold Motor Boat Racing Club, whose then Commodore, Charlie Sheppard, had the initial idea for racing powerboats in the tight confines of Bristol Docks. As Charlie Sheppard said in an article in the 1975 programme, ‘Unlike most well-known sporting events, which have achieved fame through normal progression, the Embassy Grand Prix hit the top from the first “gun.” This was inevitable, because long before the first racing boat had ‘wetted its bottom’ in the city docks, the proposed powerboat racing had attained notoriety in certain quarters. After all, the vision of powerboats hurtling around that tortuous strip of water, bordered by those formidable stone walls at speeds in excess of 80 mph was, in the opinion of many good people, “sheer Madness.”’
During its 19 year history the Embassy Grand Prix (which went on to be the Bristol Grand Prix, sponsored by Rolatruc in 1983 and ’85, International powerboat promotions in 1984 and Mitsubishi in 1986, ’87 ’88 and '89 and Technophone in '90) was considered to be the most demanding and spectacular circuit powerboat race in the world. It was known as powerboat racings equivalent of motor racings Monaco Grand Prix and top powerboat drivers from all over the world came to take part in this premiere event, which was one of circuit powerboat racing’s greatest challenges.
In an article in the 1976 programme, Charlie Sheppard spoke of the first time the Italian team saw the course. ‘The Italian team came over for the first Embassy Grand Prix in 1972. I was just coming ashore at Princes Street on the Thursday evening before the race as a car stopped on the bridge. I hurried across to greet them; Carlo Rasini, Carlo Bodega, Giorgio and Renato Molinari. After welcoming them to Bristol, Renato the absolute maestro of the circuits looked across that narrow stretch of water and said, “We drive up that way?” I replied “that’s right.” “And which way do we come back?” he asked quite seriously. “The same way.” I said adding, “it’s a bit wider round the corner.” After a rather pregnant pause, during which I had visions of him jumping in his car and returning to Italy he said with a grin, “is a little tight, yes? – but OK.” I breathed again’