One of the more interesting Unlimited Hydroplane seasons in recent memory comes to a conclusion this weekend in Doha, Qatar. In about four years time, having an Unlimited race in the Middle East has gone from a seemingly impossible dream to an exciting anomaly to a regular stop for the H1 Unlimited tour. The impact that the Doha race has had on the sport as a whole in such a short time has been so immense that it's almost easy to forget that an actual race is taking place over the weekend.
There is, of course, a race this weekend and over the last two seasons the Doha race has proven to be one of the more exciting races on the calendar. Doha Bay's salty two mile course has shown to be very fast but also quite treacherous in the first two editions of the Oryx Cup, with a number of incidents happening in the second turn. Although this year's race doesn't have the added drama of a tight High Point race there is sure to be some exciting twists and turns by week's end.
The U-96 Spirit of Qatar comes into its "home" race as the favorite but also the team with the most to lose. The team needs only 397 points to secure its first High Point Championship in four years (and the first title in four years for any team not based in Madison) so that should be secured by Friday's heats unless something unforeseen happens. The team showed in San Diego that the "lane assignments by draw" were actually an advantage for them, as they have shown time and again that they are the best in the sport in preparing to run in a specific lane. With this method being used again in Doha it only adds to their advantage, but this also means that the team will have the most pressure on them to win. Dave Villwock has shown throughout his career that he is apt to thriving in such pressure situations so this weekend should be no different.
The U-17 Miss Red Dot looks to finish their stellar season in Doha. The team has, hands down, been far and away the most improved team for the 2011 season, but all that is missing is a first place finish in the Final Heat. Kip Brown, who came into 2011 without even a single heat victory in the Unlimited Class, has won a number of heats and had two overall second place finishes in the four races he's competed in this year. A victory in Doha would obviously be the perfect cap on a magical season for the team, and with a boat that performs well on fast courses it isn't out of the question, especially if they receive favorable draws. Even without a race win in 2011 however the team can only be positive about their performance this season.
The U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison team has had one of its most up and down seasons in a fifty year history full of ups and downs for the Miss Madison. Although the team has won two races this season, a horrific accident in Madison that forced the team to use a leased boat for Detroit and a number of untimely penalties along the way has left the Oberto-Madison boat all but mathematically eliminated from the possibility of winning its fourth straight championship. Steve David and the team have performed well in Doha but have also been stricken by some bad luck in both races, with a blowover in 2009 (although they were able to rebound and finish second in the Final) and engine issues in the 2010 Final that relegated the team to a third place finish. Taking away the fight for lanes also took away a big advantage for Steve David, but the veteran driver should have the boat in a position to win on Saturday's Final Heat.
The U-7 Valken.com is another team looking to put a cap on a fine season. Scott Liddycoat has had the most impressive rookie season since Mike Allen drove the same U-7 team (albeit a different boat) to the championship in 2006. With a number of heat wins and podium finishes already under their belt, all that is needed is a race win to put a cap on the season. Much like the U-17 team, the U-7 team can look at 2011 as a building block to bigger and better things for the team.
The U-5 Graham Trucking has had a bit of an up and down season as well and would like to make a strong showing in Doha. The team has performed extremely well in preliminary heats but always seems to have an issue in the Final including the previous race in San Diego when they were forced to settle for a sixth place finish. The draw for lanes rule took away a huge advantage for Jeff Bernard, who has a knack of grabbing the inside lanes prior to a start in any class of boats he's racing in. While Final Heats have been a struggle all year for the U-5 team, it isn't outside the realm of possibility for the team to put it all together and walk away with the Oryx Cup on Saturday.
The 88 Degree Men team has seen a strong debut for its new hull in 2011. Since being unable to score any points in Madison, the boat has been right in the mix of things and has made a stellar showing for a sponsor that has been getting involved in the sport in a big way. Although the team was only able to finish fifth in San Diego, J. Michael Kelly is returning to the race that he won in 2009 (which, consequentially, was the last race won by someone not named Steve David or Dave Villwock). Kelly and the boat have shown that the can perform extremely well in rough water, so the team could have an advantage when Doha's two mile course gets a little bumpy.
The U-21 TapouT has struggled through much of the 2011 season, but has the added advantage of a new sponsor for the Doha race. Not only is TapouT continuing their support from the San Diego race, MusclePharm has also joined the team for Doha. The team failed to make the Final Heat in San Diego and has been an also ran for much of the year, but Brian Perkins has shown his skill on short courses before. A Final Heat appearance isn't out of the question.
The U-100 Leland Racing team has been a solid if not spectacular performer for much of 2011. When the team is able to avoid mechanical gremlins they have laid down some solid showings this season. Greg Hopp made a great showing in Doha last season, running deck to deck with the Miss Madison for a heat until the salt water got the boat. This is another team looking to make the Final Heat for the 2011 finale.
The U-57 Formulaboats.com has been another solid racer for 2011, although they were unable to score any points beyond qualifying points in the previous race in San Diego. Mark Evans will not be available to drive the U-57 in Doha, which means that Jimmy Shane will return to the Unlimited class driving the boat in which he made his Unlimited debut in 2007. With an expanded field for this year's Oryx Cup and a backup driver, I'm sure the Formulaboats team is realistic about their goals for this race, but one of the most skilled crews in the game should never be counted out.
The U-22 Webster Racing team is back on the tour after missing the San Diego race in order to make an appearance at the UIM General Assembly in Abu Dhabi. This still relatively new team has gone through some growing pains this season as they have adjusted to their recently purchased hull that hadn't raced the previous four seasons. Mike Webster has been a solid performer throughout his Unlimited career, and with favorable draws and some luck the former Miss Madison hull could make it to the Final Heat alongside its current counterpart.
The 2011 season for the U-25 Superior Racing team can not be defined as anything but a struggle. After securing a hull only a few weeks before the season started, never leaving the trailer in Madison, failing to score any points in Detroit, and being relegated to a trailer in Seattle, missing the San Diego race in order to be displayed at the UIM General Assembly in Abu Dhabi might have been seen as a relief for a team that has had one of its worst seasons for one of the longest tenured owners and drivers in the sport. Ken Muskatel was seminal in getting the deal struck for the Oryx Cup a few years ago so the fact that he will be there seems right, and while the team shouldn't expect anything spectacular they deserve credit for being persistent when so many other teams would have folded the tent.