Powerboat P1: Power, passion... and panic

Speed freaks have a new sport. That's as long as their bodies can take it, says Daniel Cobbs
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Anywhere else on this earth the sight of five men, on a beach, wearing red racing overalls and carrying crash helmets under their arms would cause a stir. Here, in the mild warmth of a spring sun, the hardcore sunworshippers of Saint-Tropez never gave us a second look.

Accepting an invitation to the pre-season get-together of Powerboat P1 Championship participants seemed an opportunity not to be missed. Sun, sea, sports and sangria. Had I realised I would be expected to ride in one of these monstrously powerful boats, I may not have been as hasty with my RSVP.

Before scrambling from the dinghy to the powerboat, the most challenging experience I'd had in any seagoing vessel was a nip round the bay on a pedalo excursion in Majorca in 1987. On this day, unlike then, the Mediterranean had whipped up an unseasonable swell: with it came five-feet high waves. For these boats, anything other than millpond surfaces are akin to driving a Ferrari at 120mph over a parade of sleeping policemen.

When the massive engines were fired up, seagulls half a mile away took refuge inland. The punch these motors can deliver became apparent when my two-man Italian crew took delight in egging each other on to demonstrate why it takes a special nerve to compete in all six European championship races each season.

These boats are built to withstand far more punishment than the light swell being served up by the Med that day. With each wave we hit, the craft would be launched into the air. In that split, airborne second, as we were catapulted through the mists of seaspray, an eerie silence prevailed: the throttle was reduced, back to idle, ensuring only seawater entered the engines' cooling systems. And then, when gravity became the greater of the two forces at work, in a crescendo of white foam we smashed back on to the surface.

With each respite came the knowledge of the inevitable collision and the consequent pummelling my body would have to endure. These craft can pull up to nine Gs. Today they weren't even trying very hard.

The only thing stopping me from making an undignified exit was a grab-handle – and a prayer. Hanging on to this piece of metal took all my strength, which rapidly ebbed and left little for heavenly pleadings. Neither the pilot nor the throttle-man spoke English, while I was unable to translate "slow down you mad bastards, I'm about to throw up my lunch".

The Powerboat P1 World Championship is one of the fastest growing race series in motorsport. Contested over 12 rounds, at least 25 performance craft compete for the title at some of Europe's most popular resorts. In four years this lifestyle sport has become a professional business proposition for host cities and the marine industry.

Most competitors who compete in either of the two classes – Evolution and SuperSport – have typically graduated through domestic championships or other forms of motorsport. They're usually self-funded or heavily sponsored, although this year will see the major boat and engine manufacturers entering teams for the first time. Martin Lai from Exeter, a team owner and pilot of his own craft, told me that a typical season can cost in excess of €300,000, excluding an initial outlay for the boat.

"We're desperately looking for more sponsors," he said. " This is the first season professional teams will be entering, and to compete with them on equal terms we will need more money."

Money doesn't seem to be a problem for last year's Evolution champion, Giancarlo Cangiano, who spends "about a million euros", on his team. " This sport is a great passion of mine."

"Passion", was the one word used by everyone I spoke to. In my book there's a thin line between all-consuming passion and complete foolhardiness. After my experience the latter seems to be the more appropriate description, even though it left me with a strange, over-riding feeling.

I want another go.