Powerboat Racing: Is it a boat?.. Is it a plane?.. No... It's a powerboat

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The Formula One Powerboat World Championship reaches its climax today. Adam Szreter reports from Abu Dhabi.

One of the wealthiest little Emirates in the world is gearing itself up for today's final round of the Formula One Powerboat World Championship at the Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club, along a half-mile stretch of the Persian Gulf with the desert city's Mosque-topped skyscrapers for a backdrop.

The traditional climax to the season arrives after seven races in Europe and one in Xiamen, where over half a million Chinese spectators turned out on each of the two days of racing to watch the catamarans travel at speeds of up to 140mph across the water.

Barely a thousand are expected to line the beach along the corniche road today, but as most of those will be friends or bodyguards of Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, the event's patron, it is the quality rather than the quantity of the spectators that will count.

What they will be watching is neither in-shore nor offshore powerboating - the sport in which billionaires battle against the elements and where the former Formula One motor-racing driver Didier Pironi and Princess Caroline of Monaco's husband, Stefano Casiraghi, met their deaths.

This is circuit racing in extremely light craft (390kg) which barely touch the water as they blast down the straight, countering such G-forces in the turn that drivers can occasionally suffer a momentary blackout.

The trick is in the "trimming", where the driver attempts to control the amount of water flowing through the tunnel beneath him, thus increasing or reducing drag by altering the angle of the two-litre engine. The choice of propeller (each team will have around 40 to choose from) is also critical and depends entirely on the prevailing conditions.

"A Formula One boat is more an aeroplane than it is a boat," said Billy Seebold, the American former world champion who now designs boats for many of those racing today. "The driver is trying to fly it just above the water, working the throttle with the foot, steering it and monitoring a two-litre engine all at the same time."

It is a dangerous sport, where slight gusts of wind can cause havoc and a dodgy trim can catapult a vessel sky-high. But safety has improved immeasurably since 1984 when there were five fatalities in six races, with drivers these days strapped into their moulded cockpits. Now they only have to worry about drowning rather than being torn to shreds.

It can also be costly in financial terms, with each team needing to find $1m (pounds 600,000) per season per boat, and each event costing the Union Internationale Motonautique, the sport's governing body, around the same. Today marks the end of British American Tobacco's involvement and the UIM, celebrating its 75th anniversary, has its work cut out to find new backers.

The edge has been taken off the competitive side of today's proceedings by the presence of the American Scott Gillman, who in his first season outside the US has an unassailable 23-point lead in the championship. But the race for second place should be a tight one between Italy's Guido Cappellini, champion in the four previous years, Finland's Pertti Leppala and the Welshman Jonathan Jones, another former champion who combines this madness with a job as a banker.

FORMULA ONE POWERBOAT WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP Ninth and final round (Abu Dhabi, UAE): Final qualifying classification for today's race: 1 G Cappellini (It; team: DAC Racing; hull: DAC) fastest lap 57.23sec, 141.53kph; 2 S Gillman (US, Rainbow Formula, Seebold) 57.45; 3 F Cantando (It, Singha, DAC) 57.50; 4 J Jones (GB, JP Gold Leaf, Seebold) 57.51; 5 P Blackburn (GB, Emirates F1, Burgess) 58.22; 6 P Leppala (Fin, DAC Europe, DAC) 58.28. Selected: 11 A Elliott (GB, MPR ACE Racing, Burgess) 1:00.80; 21 A Marshall (GB, MPR ACE Racing, Seebold) 1:04.86.