A Brief History of Circuit Racing
So, where do we start? How far back do we go? From the minute that a motor was attached to a boat, people wanted to see how fast they could make that boat go, and competition naturally followed. As early as 1902 the Marine Motoring Association was formed to control British motorboat racing but it wasn't until after the austerity of World War I started to dissipate that the sport began to take off. Many of the fastest race boats of the twenties and thirties were of a hydroplane configuration, including Sir Malcolm Campbells Bluebird II - a single step hydroplane. During the 1930s the stepped hull designs began to be superceeded by displacement hulls - so called because in order to float they had to displace water equal to their own weight. These hulls, instead of riding over the water as the hydroplanes did, cut through the water. It was Samuel Edgar Saunders (he of Saunders-Roe flying boat fame) who redesigned the normal rounded boat shape into a pronounced vee-section sweeping up to a short stem. This design lifted the bow the moment the boat began to move forward, the lift increasing as the speed increased. My personal interest and knowledge starts in the early 1970s but it would be nice if over time other’s contributions are added to the History Section.
The first names to stick in my mind were Charlie Sheppard and Renato Molinari. The first because at the time he had had the idea (brilliant or mad, depending on your point of view) of having powerboat races in the confines of Bristol Docks. The second because Molinari was the first powerboat ‘maestro’ I had the opportunity to watch.
Charlie Sheppard, built and designed his Bristol Boats at the Jolly Sailor Boatyard at Saltford near Bristol. In the late 1950s there were other British boat builders who were also designing and building monohull boats suitable for racing. They included Bill Shakespeare, whose boatyard was on the River Avon at Tewkesbury and Ron Wolbold, who started building his blu-fin boats in 1959.
The 1960s saw the development of catamaran design with the Prout brothers, Roland and Francis, from Canvey Island, Essex, producing the first British designed catamaran. Initially built to be used for waterskiing; they soon realised that they had a craft that could win races. This is where the name Molinari appears in the story. An Angelo Molinari designed catamaran was entered in the 1964 Duchess of York race at Chasewater, driven by the brothers, Carlo and Enrico Rasini (the RYA putting it in a separate class of its own as it did not comply to the rules). A molinari cat powered by Mercury’s new 100hp engine, won the 1966 Paris 6 hours with Renato Molinari and Cesare Scotti at the wheel.
In that same year, Jackie Wilson successfully raced a small Torriggia designed cat at the London Motor Boat Racing Club’s circuit at Iver.
Ron Wolbold was unmoved by the cat revolution and continued to build his very successful monohulls, including one for Bill Brown, one of the founders of Cosworth Engineering. Brown fitted it with a 1600cc twin cam engine from a Lotus Elan. It was in 1968 that Charlie Sheppard decided to try his hand at building a catamaran, the nickname of which became Soggy Moggy. Bill Shakespeare was also racing his own design Avon cat.
It was obvious that outboard speeds would continue to rise as the rivalry for domination between OMC and Mercury continued. In 1969, Bob Spalding had got his Schulze cat, Bobcat, up to 85mph on the Idroscalo Lake in Milan. It became clear that cat design would need to change to accommodate the ever-increasing speeds.
In 1970 Sheppard and Ron Jones, of Seattle, were the only two designers working on a picklefork design concept. The picklefork design allowed the leading edge of the tunnel to be further away from the surface of the water and the ‘lift’ to start further back. Sheppard and Jones realised that this radical design was needed to make the catamarans safer to drive. Around the same time James Beard, with the help of Chris Hodges, was developing an offshore cat with a picklefork configuration.
The 1970 Paris six-hour race was won by a Molinari cat and Sheppard’s Soggy Moggy came fifth overall. In that same year, the dangers of racing outboard catamarans was again highlighted, when experienced boat builder and racer, Bill Shakespeare lost his life in pre-race practice for the Windermere Grand Prix. Soon after, Charlie Sheppard gave up building cats and turned his attention to his plans to organise a powerboat race in the confines of Bristol Docks.
As the 1970s continued, the race to make bigger and faster outboards moved swiftly. A pace, that finally the boat builders could not keep up with. The faster the engine, the more air was forced under the tunnel. And as there was an optimum amount of air that any particular tunnel design could accept; once that point was passed, the craft became unstable. The ultimate challenge for boat builders and drivers came with the advent of OMC’s monster 3.3 litre 235hp V8 Evinrude and the 240hp Johnson, and Mercury’s 370hp T4. One of the showdowns between these monsters was at the 1979 Embassy Grand Prix. During the Friday afternoon qualifying, Earl Bentz, a young driver from Tennessee, who had never raced in Bristol before, went out and posted a time of 98.24 mph, breaking the lap record. He was using a Mercury T3 but the race was won by Billy Seebold in one of his own designed cats powered by a Mercury T4.
The big split between the two major engine manufacturers came in 1980. Charlie Sheppard, with the support of Wills Tobacco, decided that the Embassy Grand Prix, and the coveted Duke of York Trophy for that year would be contested by the 2 litre ON Class catamarans. This class was renamed Formula One. That same year Mercury Marine, under pressure from their parent company, decided to withdraw the T4 and to align themselves with a 2 litre limit. At the time it was suggested by those more cynical, that Mercury were happy to see engine size limited because their T4 wasn’t up to the job compared with OMC’s engine. It was assumed that OMC would follow suit but at a press conference following the last race of the Canon Trophy Series, they announced their intention of producing a more powerful OZ engine (a 3.5 litre 400hpV8) for the 1981 season.
These monster engines were given the thumbs up when British American Tobacco's John Player Special brand, already sponsoring Lotus in Formula One car racing, signed a three-year contract to sponsor an OZ series that offered substantial prize money. Top drivers, including Renato Molinari, Cees van der Velden, Roger Jenkins, Tom Percival and Bob Spalding were originally keen on setting limits to engine size but finally went with the JPS series. For drivers like Roger Jenkins the opportunity to have the same power factory engine as everyone else was an opportunity no to be missed – an opportunity that led him to become 1982 World Champion.
In 1981, PR man extraordinaire, David Parkinson, along with Jackie Wilson, formed FONDA (Formula ON Drivers Association). It was Parkinson who, having both Mercury and Canon as clients, created the Canon Series. FONDA went on to form a series that took in Brussels, Bristol, Linz, Milan, Paris and St Louis. After a controversial meeting of the UIM, it was decided that the title of Formula One would be given to the OZ series and the ON series was given the token title of Formula Grand Prix.
The Formula One OZ series and the Formula Grand Prix ON series ran alongside each other during 1981, ’82 and ’83. It was what happened during the 1984 Formula One season that changed the views of drivers, teams and sponsors alike.
In 1982 there was only one venue in the calendar where the FONDA seven-race World Series and the John Player Formula One Series happened over the same weekend. That was Bristol. Billy Seebold had come to Bristol to prove a point. He arrived with two engines – a standard Mercury two-litre, for the FONDA races and another bored out to 2.4 litres, which allowed him to race with the ‘Big Boys’ in the 3.5 litre OMC powered boats.
That weekend of the 5th and 6th June 1982, proved to be one of the most memorable in the history of circuit powerboat racing and marked Billy Seebold as one of the all-time greats. With his mechanic, Leo Molindyke, Seebold managed to enter the heats for both series by swapping power heads in record times. That weekend Seebold raced an amazing 130 laps of Bristol within those imposing granite walls.
1983 dawned with 19 drivers competing for the 9 race Formula One Grands Prix and 26 drivers competing for the 7 race FONDA series. Renato Molinari proved his supremacy in Formula One, while German, Michael Werner took the FONDA trophy and Billy Seebold won his 5th Duke of York Trophy in Bristol. 1983 also saw an innovation in circuit catamaran design. The craft was built by Barracuda Boats and it used Kevlar, carbon fibre and fibreglass.
Then came 1984. A year in which the Formula One circuit powerboat racing community lost four of its drivers – Luigi Valdano, Gerard Barthelemy, Saverio Roberto and Tom Percival. With three races of the ten-race season still to run, numbers were depleted. Carlsberg pulled their sponsorship and their driver Roger Jenkins announced his retirement on the Tuesday following Tom Percival’s death in the Belgium Grand Prix. Benson and Hedges, the sport’s largest sponsor, held a meeting on the Saturday morning prior to the London Grand Prix, just one week after the Belgium Grand Prix. What could be done to protect driver’s lives? The answer at the time was – nothing – if the drivers chose to race, that was their choice. Cees van der Velden, Benson and Hedges driver and team manager, had no alternative – he announced the withdrawal of his three-boat team from the remainder of the season. Consequently the race organisers, Sports Sponsorship International, were left with a very diminished field.
Blame was laid at many doors, including those drivers and sponsors who decided to call it a day, those who didn’t (such as Molinari) – would it have increased the pace of change if the remaining top drivers had refused to race? The powers-that-be, the UIM, for not taking decisive action earlier (would they have done anything if Benson and Hedges had not withdrawn). OMC also had their share of criticism – they spent considerable sums of money inviting American drivers to compete in the season’s final races, and supporting other European drivers who were not sponsored, to ensure respectable numbers of entrants. Some of the drivers were less than experienced. Some asked, could OMC not have cancelled the remaining events and used the money supporting projects to improve safety?
If there was one positive thing to come out of the 1984 season, it was the development towards making the high-powered catamarans safer to race. Chris Hodges, Tom Percival’s partner and boat designer decided he couldn’t wait any longer. Although Bill Brown, president of the UIMs Technical Commission, had already started investigating the possibilities of incorporating a ‘safety cell’, little more was known by the end of that August. Taking ideas from Formula One motor racing, Hodges began working on a ‘safety cell’ cockpit. Four months later he had a completed cockpit ready for testing. Unhappy to expect anyone else to do the testing, Chris himself climbed into the cockpit.
His safety cell 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 sponsons 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 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. Bob Spalding commented, ‘I must confess I had taken some convincing about being strapped in! only by talking in great depth to Chris and seeing the results of the first drop did I come round to the idea. Even after the helicopter tests I was still very concerned about the drowning aspects. Finally Chris came down here and did the final tests. What I saw convinced me totally and made up my mind once and for all to go racing this year – with a cell.’ He went on to say, ‘the first time I sat in a cell was at the team press launch at Stewartby, just one week before Munich. It WAS very, very odd at first, being strapped in. But within a minute, I had actually forgotten about it. It was so comfortable. It didn’t affect my driving style at all. If anything, I think the cell helps because you are so well held that you have no problems in cornering. You don’t get thrown about as much.’
Boat builder Dave Burgess introduced canopies in the early 1990s 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.
The canopy does serve its purpose but it has removed an important element for the spectator. No longer is it possible to see the driver steering and controlling the craft, to see his hands on the wheel, wrestling with it, making those second by second corrections to keep his boat perfectly balanced.
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 continued to develop and today few craft are built of timber. Instead modern composites are used. While Formula One 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 is usually unscathed.
Much of the information above has been taken from two marvellous books by Kevin Desmond. Powerboat Speed, pub. 1988 by Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0 85177 427 x and A Century of Outboard Racing, pub. 2001 by MBI Publishing. ISBN 0-7603-1047-5. Powerboat Racing by Bill Shakespeare, pub. 1968 by Cassell. SBN 304 92235 8. Also Powerboat 85, pub. 1984 by Performance Publications. ISBN 0 9509598 1 2. Powerboat 86, pub. 1985 by Performance Publications. ISBN 0 9059598 2 0. And the F1 H2O website archive.
The 1983 season
The following is taken from an article entitled, On the Threshold of a Dream, written by Anna O’Brien in Powerboat 83 Yearbook.
The 1983 season heralds the advent of a new era of waterbourne Grand Prix racing. Ten years ago Formula 1 motor racing stood at the same crossroads. The comparisons are inevitable. And if powerboat racing follows in the footsteps of its four-wheeled counterpart, then the future looks very bright indeed for the sport.
But for the powerboat fraternity there are still many questions to be answered. Can the organisers of individual Formula 1 Grand Prix achieve a level of professionalism, so often lacking in previous years, on a par with that now seen in motor sport? Can the national television networks be persuaded to screen the World Championship on a regular basis worldwide? And, most important of all for the sport’s growth, can major sponsors be persuaded to enter the sport with the same level of professional promotion – and with the same proportional level of expenditure – as that now seen in Formula 1 motor racing?
If the first two parts of the equation can be achieved, then the third will follow. But there is a vast quantity of work to be done before this can be guaranteed.
The new season starts with one familiar name missing from the line-up; one familiar colour scheme missing from the bright kaleidoscope of team liveries. The black and gold of John Player Special. The withdrawal of the Nottingham-based company has puzzled and perturbed many of the aficionados of Formula 1. John Player were reputed to have signed a three-year contract to sponsor the World Championship, yet they terminated this agreement with the UIM after only two years, just when it seemed that they were beginning to achieve a level of recognition for Formula 1 hitherto unparalleled – thanks to a professional programme of promotion.
The tobacco giant first became involved in the sport in 1972, with backing for Britain’s Tom Percival. Two years later Tom was joined by Bob Spalding and the two East Anglian drivers provided a supremely successful pairing for the JPS team for the next three years. But John Player withdrew from powerboat racing in 1977. Their return in 1981 gave a much needed boost to the newly constituted Formula 1 World Championship, which they agreed to sponsor, together with a three-boat team of Percival, Spalding and the young Frenchman, Francois Salabert.
After their long association with motor sport and Team Lotus, John Player were aware of the need for a championship structure which would be readily comprehensible to the general public. The points-scoring system, based on 9-6-4-3-2-1 for the top six drivers, was adopted and a series of six races in England, Italy, Germany, Holland, France and Norway, organised. Instead of the previous year’s mixture of sprint and endurance racing, the 1981 World Championship Grand Prix comprised solely sprint races of three or four heats of a limited lap duration. A format easy for spectators to appreciate and one which provided some spectacular racing.
In 1982 the calendar was expanded to include eight races in Europe and one in the USA – in Pittsburgh – which attracted enormous media coverage and caught the imagination of the general public. It also served to confirm the growing awareness of the men – and women – within the Formula 1 camp of the unexplored potential of the Grand Prix circuit.
John Player had appointed a London-based sports promotion agency, CSS Promotions Ltd, to handle the press and PR activities in support of the World Championship and the JPS Johnson team. The promoters, recognising the need to educate the public and the media about the world series, conducted a professional but relatively limited campaign – which included a unique confrontation. Just ten days after the first round of the 1982 World Championship, the John Player Powerboat Challenge was staged at Holme Pierrepont. The contest pitted the power of the Formula 1 JPS Lotus race car driven by Nigel Mansell against the Veldens of Percival and Spalding. Although Mansell eventually emerged triumphant after the deciding run, the boats certainly confirmed their potential before the television cameras – and the ensuing national coverage aroused the interest of many who had previously been unaware of the capabilities of the high-speed hulls. It was a step in the right direction. And, as the year progressed, there were signs that the professional approach was paying dividends – not only for the sponsor but for the sport itself. It was a feeling echoed by the Formula 1 drivers themselves too. After the van der Velden and Salabert accidents in Liege, they agreed to band together in an official association – the first in Formula 1 history – an association which would represent their interests, particularly on the all important question of safety.
At Holme Pierrepont, the fledgling organisation was formalised and christened – FOPDA – The Formula 1 Powerboat Drivers’ Association. A steering committee of three was nominated comprising Roger Jenkins, Tom Percival and Carlo Columbo. Jenkins was elected President.
But as the season drew to a close, it became obvious that the John Player support was on the wane. The affable Ian Searle, who had established himself as a respected ambassador of JPS, retired after the Holme Pierrepont race and , after the final round of the 1982 Championship in Milan, rumours that John Player were to withdraw their support from the series were confirmed. It was not an altogether satisfactory farewell for a sponsor who had done so much for the sport. And one which was to arouse further conjecture later, in 1983.
Speculation about the future of Formula 1 was rife. Sadly for fans in the UK, the only magazine which had attempted to give the Formula 1 World Championship any form of adequate coverage – Powerboating – had folded, due to financial difficulties, early in 1982. Pessimism formed the cornerstone of most of the attitudes in Britain – despite the fact that the country boasted the new World Champion – Roger Jenkins – who had carried off the title in the nail-biting finish in Milan.
Then, in December, came the intriguing unveiling of a new Grand Prix venue in the UK. The Royal Victoria Dock was the focus of attention as Bob Spalding and Arthur Mostert tested the proposed new circuit under the eyes of the television cameras. The verdict? An unmitigated success. The world of Formula 1 was alive and kicking – and the focus of attention once more.
January 1983 witnessed the announcement of the suspension of Britain’s premier event – the Embassy Grand Prix. Sponsored by Imperial Tobacco for eleven years, the Bristol weekend had provided many thousands of spectators with some thrilling racing over the years. But the safety considerations of the tight, tortuous circuit, particularly after the tragic events of last June, posed major problems. The participation of Formula 1 boats could, seemingly, not be guaranteed.
Just as in motor racing, there were indications that the performances of the hulls had outgrown the exigencies of the circuit. It was a difficult dilemma for organisers, drivers and sponsors alike and, when the UIM awarded the Formula 1 World Championship race to London, Charlie Sheppard of the organising Cotswold Motor Boat Racing Club and Peter Dyke, head of Sponsored events for Imperial Tobacco, decided to suspend the meeting. The decision was not altogether surprising since Imperial’s obvious disillusionment with powerboat racing – a disillusionment which is hard to fathom and which has never been explained officially – was apparent to those closely associated with the sport from the middle of the 1982 season. And Sheppard had made his feelings about the status of the ‘Formula 1’ classification well known. However, the permanent loss of the Embassy meeting would be a sad blow to many of the spectators and competitors throughout the various categories. At the time of writing, there is still a possibility that a new sponsor will step in and take over the famous event (see Embassy Grand Prix History).
The calendar for the 1983 season comprises a total of ten races – two in the USA. And there is promise too of a lucrative five-race series in the States, encompassing the two World Championship rounds.
The ebullient Mark Wilson plans to step into the senior class at the wheel of a second Martini Molinari – as well as contesting all the Formula Grand Prix and national races. An ambitious programme but one which he is determined to implement!
The 1982 Formula 3 World Champion, Rick Frost, will carry the Trimite colours in the three and a half litre category and his arch rival of 1982, Lasse Strom of Sweden, also has the opportunity to prove his prowess against the Formula 1 brigade.
After the death of their close friend and compatriot Guido Caimi in Milan, both Ettore Cagnani and Luigi Baggioli have retired from racing. And Carlo Columbo, still recovering from his injuries, will not be donning his helmet again. But he will be lending his support to the nascent FOPDA and helping to further the sport’s advancement.
The UK fans will have a second chance to see the V8’s in action in 1983. Under the firm control of Len Britnell and the London Motor Boat Racing Club – who will also be in charge of the London race – the UIM Class OZ World Sprint Championships will be held at Holme Pierrepont on August 27, 28 and 29 together will a full programme of supporting races.
The red and white Carlsberg Burgess of reigning World Champion Roger Jenkins will form a formidable adversary and the young Scottish dentist, Allan Nimmo will return with a Molinari hull and Castrol sponsorship. But, for some of the other experienced drivers, 1983 still poses a number of problems. Sponsorship has been hard to find for former JPS teammates, Tom Percival and Bob spalding and the Dutch duo of van der Velden – amazingly rstored and determined to race despite his horrific Liege accident – and Mostert, have sought long and hard for financial backing. A Formula 1 season without them would be unthinkable. Let’s hope we see them all in action in a Grand Prix season poised on the threshold of the possible dream.
The FONDA Two Litre World Series
The following article is taken from the Powerboat 83 Yearbook. (credit needed)
The FONDA Two Litre World Series was born when a group of drivers and race organisers decided that the existing top class, called OZ, an unlimited category, did not, in their own opinion, provide a fair basis for true international racing. Four years ago racing in the OZ class was dominated by factory-supported drivers who had specially prepared engines. Time and time again the independent driver and his sponsor found that they had little chance of victory against such equipment and race entries declined to an alarmingly low level. Racing was becoming boring and processional with few boats on the water.
A number of drivers, therefore, with Jackie Wilson (father of FONDA driver Mark Wilson) as a leading force, moved that two litres (the ON class) be the top limit for circuit powerboat racing and formed the Formula ON Drivers Association, which subsequently changed to Formula 1 drivers Association but has now returned to the original format. Anything over two litres they suggested should become an experimental class, as OZ had been originally.
At the same time, Mercury decided to withdraw from racing and their powerful T4 works engine disappeared from the circuits. Mercury were subsequently to back the two-litre capacity limit. However, Outboard Marine Corporation already had the enormous 3.5 litre V8 outboard in the pipeline and when this was announced in Paris in October 1980, many drivers were thrown into a quandary. Everybody agreed there should be a limit on engine capacity, but nobody could agree what that limit should be and nobody was certain which of the two engine sizes would become a successful Formula 1.
The disagreement caused a rift in the sport, one that looked as if it might tear the whole of racing apart. Some of the drivers who had previously supported the limit moved over to OMC and their Evinrude and Johnson V8 engines, others who had previously raced in the highest powered class, backed the two litre limit.
John Player signed a three year contract to sponsor the OZ series, FONDA received some backing from Mercury and the ’81 season began in somewhat shaky fashion. Each formula had its problems and both were insisting on the title Formula 1. However, there was sufficient support for both categories and each increased in popularity with drivers and sponsors. It seemed the shake-up, far from killing the sport entirely, had created two competitive and healthy classes.
It became apparent that the more powerful engine must be awarded the status of Formula 1 and this has since been ratified by the UIM. The FONDA Two Litre World Series, this year called the Formula Grand Prix World Series, became a successful world championship circuit in its own right.
The Formula Grand Prix World Series is deliberately restricted to seven events to enable drivers to compete in their own country’s national events and this year the calendar has been drawn up to ensure no overlap with the Nationals. Further plans are afoot to co-operate with the National Powerboat Association of the United States of America, where the two litre class is most popular, to try to ensure a co-ordinated programme of growth for racing on a world-wide basis.