Blood, wet and gear
Story by: WAYNE MARTIN - Nelson Mail - Photo by: Patrick Hamilton
Julian Stilwell is a third-generation Nelson powerboat driver and spoke to Wayne Martin about life on the highly-competitive national Formula One racing circuit.
Julian Stilwell never really stood a chance.
Powerboats have been in his family, in his blood, for more than half a century, and while it was never forced on him, Stilwell's entry into the world of boat racing was as inevitable as water running downhill.
Stilwell's now a third-generation boatie and, like his grandfather Wesley Stilwell and father Peter Stilwell before him, is continuing to keep the family name at the forefront of the New Zealand powerboat scene.
Julian had never followed the traditional sporting path of most young Kiwis, ignoring the usual rugby and cricket route to follow the more individualistic pastimes of skateboarding and BMX. Still, his eventual transition to powerboats seemed preordained.
"I remember Mum saying that I'd been to the Lake Rotoiti powerboat regatta every year since I was born, 'til about two or three years ago," he recalls.
"So it was very much a family thing we did, travelling round the country racing boats, really. I wasn't forced into it, not at all."
Now the 31-year-old Nelson accountant is preparing for phase two of this year's New Zealand F1 Powerboat Tour after finishing third overall in round one at Lake Karapiro earlier this month. He'll be back at Karapiro for round two on March 3-4, followed by the final two rounds at Lake Rotoiti on March 17-18 and Lake Kaniere on April 7-8.
And in light of his latest purchase, a new Seebold-designed 2.5-litre Mercury-powered Formula One tunnel hull, Scott Construction, Julian's best days might still be ahead of him.
It's his first campaign driving a 2.5-litre boat, having previously competed in 2-litre machines, and he is excited by the title-winning potential his new and improved model offers. But he knows there's still plenty of sweat and bone-jarring drives ahead of him in his quest for championship success.
Father Peter was the national 3-litre hydroplane champion from 1995-2000, while younger brother Philip won last year's New Zealand Formula Two tunnel hull championship. Julian's marking 2012 as an opportunity to create his own piece of championship history.
The irony of his situation hasn't escaped him, though. His improved setup aside, he's contesting the most competitive class in the country and says that this season's field is the strongest it's ever been.
"It's by far the most competitive class out of all the powerboat classes. We had a field of nine genuine boats running at Karapiro and they're very high quality boats – even on a world standard, they would be quite high quality.
"I don't think you'd find any other Formula One powerboat field in the world that would be as good at the moment."
While he's increased his power this season, the field has also strengthened proportionately.
"Now that I'm running as good gear as the other guys, it's now a bit annoying from my perspective because there's now seven or eight of them that are running good gear as well.
"It's definitely, by far, the toughest field it's ever been."
He's been racing boats ever since picking up an old Formula Three boat, as a 17-year-old, from Picton-based Gavin Jamieson in 1997. Jamieson's brother, Malcolm, is currently leading the New Zealand F1 Powerboat Tour. Stilwell showed enough natural talent and ability back then to win the North Island F3 title in his debut season, before accepting a drive in Wellington racer Steve Hughes' boat in round one of the 2002 New Zealand Formula One series.
"He'd injured himself on a motocross bike and broke his collarbone. He's always been a big fan of the young guns and bringing people up into the sport."
Stilwell again showed potential, finishing fifth overall on debut, prompting his own decision to compete full-time in Formula One.
It meant the Stilwell Brothers Racing Team building a new hull for the 2007 season, and Julian finishing a satisfying third in the New Zealand F1 championship, an effort he repeated in 2008 and 2010. The boat would take on various guises over the seasons, having raced as Resene, Galbraith Sandblasting, Placemakers and Johnston and Associates Chartered Accountants Ltd (Jacal).
However, competing with comparatively outmoded gear continued to pose problems.
"It was probably our third season and we were still running a 2-litre versus a 2.5-litre Mercury. It's not the ideal setup, because you basically don't get as good a run off the dock at the start because you haven't got as much torque, essentially.
"But as far as lap times go, once you're on the track moving, it's quick. I was qualifying top three most of the time but then, of course, at the starts, I was having to start maybe sixth or something like that because all the 2.5s would take off from the dock and I'd have to pick maybe two or three off during the race."
In 2008, they were the only 2-litre boat in the Formula One series. That same year, Christchurch driver Dave Duthie imported a new 2.5-litre Seebold hull, Red Chilli, from the United States.
"He raced it that season, rolled it, got stuck in it and it scared him quite a bit. He held on to the boat for a couple of seasons for his son, who went back to motocross."
In the market for a new gearbox, Stilwell contacted Duthie. Impressed by the new boat's handling capacity and its immaculate condition, he eventually decided to buy the boat, complete with engine.
"The ironic thing is that the gears in the gearbox were damaged, which was originally the part we were looking at purchasing. But as far as the actual engine equipment was concerned, it was immaculate."
Despite some early teething problems, Stilwell drove Scott Construction to a close overall third behind Auckland's reigning F1 champion Luke Sharp (Prompt Parts), with Jamieson (KRB Racing) currently holding the tour lead after two firsts and a second in the three round-one heats.
"I think we're probably a little bit down on horsepower and we're definitely down on setup. But we've only been to two race meetings with this boat and we're learning heaps.
"I mean, I know the particular propeller I was running is definitely not designed for the track we're running. And it's so competitive. At the end of the day, it's starting to come down to the starts and the setup you've got for the start, really."
The bottom line is that Stilwell knows he now has the resources to mount a genuine title challenge. He certainly feels that he has the ability and experience.
"I've grown up with it, and, I suppose, it becomes a way of life. I live and breathe it, put it that way. It takes a different mindset and you've definitely got to be sharp."
Operating at speeds of around 210kmh requires some sensible decision-making.
"I think I'm an intelligent driver. I'd say I weigh the risks up before making a move.
"Sometimes you grip and you're almost closing your eyes. It's very action-packed and fast-paced, although it may look like a bit of an armchair ride from the shore, but definitely in the boat, your head's smashing around.
"The best analogy I've heard for driving a Formula One boat is driving an F1 car across a ploughed field. Water's like rock."
Competing against an experienced group of drivers also has some obvious benefits.
"It's just being mindful of the other boats. At the moment, it's a pretty good group of drivers really. We're all aware of what the other guys are doing.
"There hasn't been a major accident in the last couple of years.
"Half the field are in boats they've probably had for two or three seasons at least, so they've got them set up quite good. They're very capable of driving their boats."
Stilwell says he's indebted to his current stable of sponsors, Scott Construction, ITM, Burnsy's Straight and Paint, The SignShop and Johnston Associates for keeping him on the track and intends repaying that support with some positive results over the next three rounds of the national series.
"It's difficult because we're still in the process of setting the boat up, but I think we've got the package to do the business.
"I'd like to think we're definitely in the running this year still. It's only the end of round one. We've still got another three rounds to run."