Powerboat Racing: Riding a dangerous wave from dhow to success: A former footballer has become the best with backing from horse racing's Maktoum brothers. Jeremy Hart reports

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The Independent Online
KHALFAN HARIB knows his penalties from his powerboats. 'When you line up to take a penalty the goal seems so small . . . you have no idea how you're going to get the ball in the net. Driving a powerboat at 140 miles an hour through a gap 50 metres wide is the same feeling. The only difference is that this is far more dangerous.'

In 1979 Khalfan played as a forward for the Dubai side Al Nasr against Manchester United. It was his last moment of footballing fame before parental pressure made him leave the Gulf emirate for college in America. 'I really miss football,' he admitted. 'But if I was still playing I wouldn't have won the Class One world powerboat championship last year.'

This weekend Khalfan and his Victory Team from Dubai came to the Scottish Grand Prix, the first round of the World Offshore Championship (powerboating's equivalent to Formula One motor racing) to be held on the British mainland.

For the drivers, Sunday's race was potentially the most dangerous ever staged. On each of seven laps of a 20 mile course in the mouth of the Firth of Tay, the 1800 horsepower catamarans had to navigate a nautical eye of a needle, a 50 metre-wide span of the Tay Road Bridge.

The jump from football pitch to the risky waters of the Tay was a strange one. 'When I got back to Dubai from the States I bought a traditional wooden boat - a shahoof - and started racing it,' he said. 'I went on to real powerboats, Class Threes, and won the Middle East championship.'

Powerboat racing in the Gulf is the toughest training ground in the world. 'Up near Kuwait it is still very dangerous,' Khalfan said. 'There are a few mines still floating around.' Shortly after the Gulf War, many racing boats competed with bullet holes in their hulls.

Khalfan's jump from wooden dhows to world champion came on the back of the richest wave to ever hit the sport, funded by the Middle East's most prolific race horse owners, the Maktoum brothers, the rulers of the Dubai. 'Their highnesses are 100 per cent behind the team. They find what they are good at and go for it,' Khalfan said. 'It's all good publicity for Dubai.'

Their Victory Team had wiped the floor with any opposition in Gulf powerboat races, so they had to look to the world championship for some stiffer competition. With a budget estimated to be more than pounds 20m, the confidently-named team ruffled feathers in their first year of world competition.

'The economy in powerboat racing is impossible at the moment,' explained Steve Curtis, the Hampshire racer who won the world title in 1985 and 1987. 'So the trouble with the Victory Team is the fact they don't have any sponsorship. It's all funded by the state. Getting companies to pay up enough to challenge Victory is hard.'

When Khalfan Harib won last year's title at the first attempt he caught many of the established teams, including Curtis' Bilba outfit, sleeping. 'I don't think anyone thought we would be any good. They thought we had all this money but didn't now what to do with it. We proved otherwise,' said Khalfan, the 1993 champion, who won four races, more than half the series.

Curtis, powerboating's notorious wild man, and Khalfan's shy team-mate Hamed Buheleba had more than a difference of opinion at the season opener at Saint Tropez in May. Hamed, driving the team's revolutionary new royal blue boat Victory 7, was forced hard to port by a backmarker, straight into the path of Bilba.

'I was doing 130 when we hit. To be honest I had no time to think what might happen,' joked the 30-year-old Briton, whose boat pirouetted 30 feet into the air. 'By the time we came down it was time to get out.'

Curtis's co-driver, Lamberto Leoni, was trapped briefly in the upturned hull until Hamed's navigator Randy Scism could swim under the boat and free the Italian.

The pre-race worries of a similar incident close to the Tay Road Bridge yesterday went unfounded. Thick fog slowed the boats down considerably, with the winner, Hamed Buheleba averaging only 110mph.

The Italian, Norberto Ferretti, was second in Giesse Ritz Saddler, and Steve Curtis was third. Hamed now leads the championship by 12 points from Ferretti at the halfway stage and is in a strong position to become the second world powerboat champion from Dubai in as many years.

(Photograph omitted)