Gilles’s Watery Revenge

When Cardinal Toledo Gallio built his holiday villa on the shores of Lake Como in 1500, it was intended as a place of relaxation. Later it was converted to a hotel, the world famous Villa d’Este. It was visited by the worlds stars and nobility who sought the gracious living for which it had always been renowned. Clark Gable, Liz Taylor, King Baudouin Belgium, the Dukes of Windsor, Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway: they all enjoyed the peace and quiet of the classically laid out gardens which stretch down to the lapping waters of the lake. Above them, mountain peaks bathed in sunlight shade the lake. But Cardinal Gallio would have turned in his grave if he’d known about the scene on the lake below his beloved villa, 301 years after its construction. The waters were turned white and the gardens echoed with the power of outboard racing boats driven by seven of the worlds best motor racing drivers.

Race Report from Grand Prix International #39

by Martino Rimini


The shores of Lake Como were lined by 20,000 people on the Sunday before the Italian Grand Prix. Few powerboat races can boast such a crowd figures; perhaps only the Paris Six Hours or the Parker Six Hours in the United States. But for a week before the race the Italian papers, for different reasons, had carried news about the competitors. Gilles Villeneuve had been accused of being a less than innocent party in the start line shunt at the Dutch Grand Prix. Riccardo Patrese’s imminent departure to the Parmalat sponsored Brabham team had its share of column inches. Giacomelli’s future had been discussed, and Didier Pironi would be making his second public racing appearance since he joined the Ferrari team.

All in all, the Sunday afternoon had the ingredients of a relaxed but competitive event. Theoretically, everything was strictly in fun; nevertheless, no quarter would be given. The organisers greatest concern was the whereabouts of some of their principal stars. Only when Gilles Villeneuve’s helicopter touched down on the close-cropped billiard-table smooth lawns of the Villa d’Este did their worries disappear. Out of the helicopter emerged not only Villeneuve but Didier Pironi and Bruno Giacomelli.

Tullio Abbate breathed a sigh of relief. This charming, self-made man builds many of the worlds finest powerboats in his factory on the shores of the lake. Amongst his distributors is Didier Pironi, the French importer. For this Sunday’s event, he had lined up seven of his Abbate Seastar models, giving 180bhp normally selling for over £10,000.

The idea of a powerboat race between Formula 1 drivers came up over dinner one evening between Abbate, Pironi and Villeneuve. The project only became reality with the help of the Villa d’Este and a number of sponsors.

Making the drivers feel at home was the usual pre-race briefing. But it was a briefing with a difference. Instead of the usual information, e.g. what would happen if the track were to become wet (scarcely applicable), it was more a crash course in powerboat “etiquette”. Surer, who had no previous experience of the sport, needed a lesson in throttle control. Giacomelli, a recent convert to staying alive in the water (or swimming as it is sometimes known), had to be instructed in the mysteries and advantages of a lifejacket.

Fortunately no one needed their life jackets, least of all Giacomelli. He shot into the start of heat one, and no one was able to catch him. Surer learnt his lesson well and took second place, having held off Patrese.

The second heat was more closely fought. The drivers drew lots for the different boats and the first heat winner, hoping for some consolation after a disappointing season with Alfa Romeo, found himself last… and there he remained. Pironi led at first with Villeneuve right behind him. A thrilling battle had the crowds cheering for their favourite Ferrari drivers. When there is someone in front of him, Villeneuve wants to pass. He mounted his attack. Suddenly the bow of his boat rose up on the stern of Pironi’s. The crowd gasped, but the incident passed without serious damage to either boat. Now Villeneuve led, but his race wasn't won yet. The Canadian found himself behind Patrese who had stopped in the ‘pits’ and was now a lap behind. No Formula 1 driver likes to be overtaken, and Patrese did all he could to prevent Villeneuve from passing. The Italian found it fun, but Gilles was impatient. At the last corner he rammed the Italian’s boat. The two fought all the way to the finishing line, but it was Villeneuve who took the chequered flag.

After the points had been added together it was Gilles who was acclaimed the winner of the Villa d’Este’s trophy. “It was great,” said the Canadian, “and a lot of fun. But I'm used to powerboats. My own is an offshore version powered by two Ford engines giving 1400bhp. It's impossible to compare with Formula 1 racing. It's too different. One can relax on the water, but it's all hard work in a racing car.”

While Villeneuve gave interviews, a slightly bemused Tullio Abbate sat at the bar nursing a cognac. He couldn't quite believe that all his boats were still in one piece. After some cosmetic touches, they would be sold. Their battle scars would surely increase their value, such was the fame of those who had inflicted them.