x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Powerboat drivers feel safe, racing at 230kph

The F1 powerboat driver Thani al Qamzi knows he will be in safe hands when the practice sessions for the F1 H2O UIM World Championship start today.

Thani al Qamzi, left, and Ahmed al Hameli of Team Abu Dhabi are fifth and seventh in the F1 H2O UIM World Championship.
Thani al Qamzi, left, and Ahmed al Hameli of Team Abu Dhabi are fifth and seventh in the F1 H2O UIM World Championship.

ABU DHABI // The F1 powerboat driver Thani al Qamzi knows he will be in safe hands when the practice sessions for the F1 H2O UIM World Championship start today.

Mr al Qamzi, an Emirati, feels secure in his pod while racing alongside 23 other boats at speeds of up to 230kph, despite the constant danger of the boats flipping over.

"All I see are the buoys ahead of me and I have to get around them as fast and as safe as possible," he said.

Nearly a year ago, two members of the Dubai Victory racing team were killed when their boat crashed halfway through the Class 1 World Powerboat Championship.

At the time there was heavy criticism of the efforts to rescue Mohammed al Mehairi, 34, an Emirati, and his co-driver, the Frenchman Jean-Marc Sanchez, 48, a former world champion.

Experts said the race should have been patrolled by two helicopters with divers. They also called for divers within 30 seconds of every turn-mark on the course.

After studying footage of the crash, the Critical National Infrastructure Authority (CNIA) blamed bad weather.

This year, according to the CNIA's Colonel Ishaq Mohammad Salem al Bashir, who heads Bihar, a water safety awareness campaign, the authority will be closely monitoring the weather. "We have a detailed report every 12 hours," he said. Five search and rescue boats will be on standby along the two kilometre course. Each will carry a rescue team of five men, including a diver, as well as first aid kits and cutting equipment.

Mr al Qamzi, who races for Team Abu Dhabi and stands fifth in the UIM drivers' championship, said that while his single-seater boat was very different to Dubai Victory, a twin-hulled, two man vessel, the speed and power were similar.

Mr al Qamzi's team manager, Scott Gillman, said he was confident the boats were safe in the event of an accident. If they flip, an internal airbag inflates. The boats are designed to sink at the rear, so the airbag pushes the top of the boat and the driver out of the water.

If that fails, the boats have a hatch on their underside, allowing rescuers to free a trapped driver from the cockpit even if the boat is overturned.

The capsule has five separate layers of foam and fibreglass, which form a 12cm thick shock-absorbent shell. "The driver is safe in his capsule", said Mr Gillman.

According to Mr Gillman, F1 powerboat drivers experience greater forces than their motorsport counterparts. He said powerboat drivers could experience G-force four to five and half on the corners, while Formula One car drivers experienced around two to three at most. "The only guys that beat them on G-force are fighter pilots."

Practice sessions begin at 9.20am today and 8.30am on Saturday off the southern end of the Abu Dhabi Corniche.

After a parade lap at 3.15pm on Saturday, the 45-minute race will start at 3.30pm.

The longest straight is 550metres, but the boats can get up to 160kph in five seconds, a rate of acceleration near that of a drag racing car.

As the season nears its end - Abu Dhabi is the penultimate race - Mr al Qamzi is one of five drivers still able to win the championship. His Emirati teammate, Ahmed al Hameli, is in seventh place. The final race will be held in Sharjah a week from today.

eharnan@thenational.ae