Powerboat racing at the highest level is a sport in which winners are determined by how much money they spend, along with a healthy dose of luck. It’s mostly the luck factor that results in one driver getting the chequered flag and the pre-race favourite wondering why it all went so wrong.
Lake Karapiro, south of Auckland, is one of the prettiest waterways in the world to host top-level powerboat racing. And after Kiwi driver, Warwick Lupton wrested the prized EC Griffith Cup from the Aussies at Lake Mulwala, near Yarrawonga, Victoria, late in 2008, the title defence in 2010 was heralded with much fanfare. Lupton also came to Australia in 2001 and took the Cup back home with him.
Subsequently, the Kiwis approached the February 6-7 rematch with enormous commitment and ferocity. Lake Karapiro was the place to be for powerboat enthusiasts and the EC Griffith Cup event was one of the most keenly-contested, adrenaline-filled races in years.
So determined was Warwick Lupton that he fronted with two GP hydroplanes: the Annihilator 1 boat in which he won the Cup in Australia and a brand new, radically designed boat, Annihilator Race Boats, which was an outright gamble. This new hull was inspired by radio-controlled scale-model hydroplanes. Lupton was convinced that if it worked as a model, it should also work when scaled up. Time would tell.
The Annihilator team actually boasts a couple of other GP hydros – Annihilator 3, owned and driven by Ken Lupton, Warwick’s son, and Annihilator 2, a 32-year-old GP hydro owned and raced by the affable David Alexander, a hard-charging and honest driver, who has the horsepower and courage to be at the front of the field.
The Cup had an added international flavour in 2010, with talented US driver, J Michael Price, handling the red Formula GP hydro. In its former life, this boat was owned and raced as Boss by Kiwi legend, Peter Knight snr, a multiple Griffith Cup winner in his own right.
Also regarded as a great pre-race prospect was Graham Weller in a world champion Canadian-built hydro called G-Force. Powerful and fast, this combination was highly rated, but with a question mark over reliability.
The remainder of the field comprised the blown alcohol displacement boats of Tony McCaa in Hi-Tension, a classic Aussie ‘hollow log’ design hull, and the imported US K Boat Bold Move, driven by Steve Rosewarne. Ben Ryan, in the ageing hydro, Mainland Miss, rounded out the field.
Unfortunately, trans-Tasman rivalry was dead in the water this year, with no Aussie boats willing to take up the challenge. It was a bitter disappointment to the Kiwis, given that they have made a point of contesting the event whenever possible when it has been hosted on the other side of the Tasman.
Nevertheless, Kiwis, being Kiwis, are true boat racers at heart and, in spite of the all-important Griffith Cup being run on the Sunday, all entrants still took to the water for Saturday’s support events. Alexander, in Annihilator 2, cleaned up the field in all three GP hydroplane races, for three straight wins. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, they faced mechanical challenges that saw them struggle to make the Cup start line on the Sunday.
Warwick Lupton had a roller lifter fall apart, showering metal fragments throughout his engine. J Michael Price fizzed an engine in practice on Friday, then popped the spare in the first race on Sunday, sidelining him for the meeting. Weller blew both engines and the team pulled out of the pits Saturday afternoon destined for its Auckland workshop. The mission overnight was to build one race motor from two wrecks. Kiwis also like a challenge.
With an entry list of 10 starters, race organisers planned on running all 10 boats in two separate heats, with the winner determined on points.
Come Sunday morning, G Force was back in the pits, having arrived at 5:45 am. Warwick Lupton had his engine stripped and back together ready for practice. Still learning to drive the radical new hull and, in particular, still coming to terms with the size and shape of the critical turn fin, Lupton came as close to blowing over backwards as he could without actually crashing in practice.As it turned out, with the white flag out for the first heat of the 2010 EC Griffith Cup, the field lined up for the start without Lupton. His engine failed to fire and the boat drifted limply back to shore.
Alexander got the best of the start and headed the field into the first corner at 290km/h for the inside running with his 32-year-old boat. Ken Lupton was second and Weller was on the outside and running hard. On lap two, Weller moved to challenge Alexander on the outside and take the lead coming out of the first turn. G-Force was looking every bit a winner.
Then controversy that will be the talking point of the 2010 EC Griffith Cup for years to come struck. Mainland Miss caught fire off the course and red flags were deployed to stop the race on the start of the third lap.
Weller kept his boot into it and raced past the red flags to finish his four laps. Three other drivers, similarly, took some time to see the flags and abort the race.
The rules governing powerboat racing are quite simple in this respect – when the red flag is shown, drivers must come to a complete and immediate stop. They are not to return to the pits or the shore. They must simply stop where they are. Four drivers broke the rule, putting officials in an extremely difficult position.
Weller, in G-Force, bore the brunt of the wrath from the officials. After heated debate in the Committee Room, Weller emerged worried he would be disqualified from the Cup. Going by the letter of the law, he should have been – as should the other three offending drivers. But in the minds of the referees, taking four top runners out of the Griffith Cup, with the first heat still to be re-run, would have turned the event into an absolute farce.
The eventual outcome had Weller being yellow-carded and allowed to start in the re-run of Heat 1. It was a controversial decision, to say the least.
In the re-run, and with Warwick Lupton back in the fray, G-Force headed the field into the first turn, with Ken Lupton and Alexander on his inside and trailing slightly. Warwick Lupton made a fantastic start, pacing G-Force all the way from the drop of the flag to the first turn, but somehow he lost his way in the turn and spun out at over 160km/h, ending up at the back of the field.
After four fast and furious laps, Weller came home a decisive winner from Alexander, with Ken Lupton third, while Warwick Lupton regained lost ground and finished fourth. The two displacement boats battled on gamely, but on water with giant holes left by the hydros powering through the turns, the likes of Hi-Tension and Bold Move were ultimately making up the numbers.
With pole positions determined by the finishing order from the first heat, Graeme Weller had the prized inside run to the first turn. His only real challenger, Alexander, missed the start when his engine failed to fire. Rosewarne in Bold Move also fizzed before the drop of the start flag, with the engine losing its oil.
Again, the drag to the first turn was a real heart-stopper, with Weller, Ken and Warwick Lupton all hitting the 290km/h mark before backing off to slide through the corner. Warwick Lupton had a big moment, lifting the inside sponson high off the water before the new Annihilator settled for the turn.
With a lap and a half to go, it appeared that fans might be in for a close finish. But motorsport at this level is punishing on equipment and Ken Lupton’s race came to an abrupt halt, his engine crying ‘enough’ just as the crowd was becoming vocal.
This left Weller with a decisive win in each heat. For the record, Warwick Lupton came across the line in second with McCaa third.
In motorsport there’s often a very fine line between victory and defeat. For Graeme Weller, an all-nighter by the team on the tools building a new engine with second-hand parts saw the Griffith Cup engraved with a new name. And it could be said that Lady Luck played her part, too.
The Griffith Cup will be raced again in New Zealand in 2011, when the event celebrates its 100th anniversary. Let’s hope that next year the Aussies turn up to make this a tough, but true Australasian championship.
The EC Griffith Cup gets its name from the trophy’s donor, Earnest Charles Griffith, who, in 1912, presented a magnificent hand-beaten solid silver trophy for the Australasian Championship. The first race for the Cup was held over a course at Manly, NSW, and was won by Anthony Horden in Kangaroo, a single-step hydroplane with a top speed of 48km/h.
Racing for the EC Griffith Cup is dictated by a Deed of Gift; a set of rules put in place by the donor and subsequently modified over the years with the permission of the Griffith family.
Today, the Cup has become the Australasian Powerboat Championship, open to boats from both sides of the Tasman. Boats can be of any design, so long as they are inboard and powered by a single automotive engine. There are no restrictions on the modifications allowed to the engine.
It has been said that the EC Griffith Cup is the world’s second oldest motorsport trophy still being contested. Two World Wars and drought have seen the Cup cancelled from time to time. In its 99-year history, it has been raced 77 times, with the Kiwis winning 21 times and the Aussies 56.
In the history of the Cup, only three Kiwis have been victorious in Australia – Len Southward, Peter Knight and Warwick Lupton. Similarly, only three Australians have won the Cup in New Zealand – Ernie Nunn, Dennis Parker and Greg Holland.
The golden years of the Cup may well have been the 1970s, when the aero-engined V12 Rolls Royce Merlin-powered ‘thunderboats’ challenged their auto-engined rivals. When these enormously powerful boats were on song, they were too big, too powerful and too fast for their auto-engined counterparts. But the era of the thunderboats was short-lived and the fleet only ever amounted to a handful of boats.
Ultimately, they were banished and the sport once more became the high-powered domain of supercharged big-block engines in displacement or hydroplane hulls.
Next year will mark the 100-year anniversary of the EC Griffith Cup.