Phonsy Mullan of team RAMJET will have his work cut out for him this weekend. Photo courtesy/copyright Russell Puckeridge/Pureart Creative Images.
Some of Australia’s best V8 Superboat drivers will “travel across the ditch” to New Zealand for the 2016 UIM World Jetsprint Championships this weekend for the first of two rounds back-to-back at the popular Meremere and Bay Park venues. A total of 45 drivers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States have entered the two Union International Motonautique-sanctioned classes—Unlimited Superboat and International Group A (400 Class).
Three-time Australian champion and recently crowned Unlimited Superboat No. 1 Phonsy Mullan leads the Australian team, which includes three Australian champions with a combined seven-national titles between them. Like World No. 2 Greg Mercier, Mullan is considered an outright chance to topple local hero and multiple world champion Peter Caughey on home soil, but the RAMJET pilot will have his work cut out for him on the testing New Zealand circuits.
“I’ve driven both Meremere [first] and Baypark [second] before with some success,” said Mullan. “In fact, only recently one of my lap records was broken at Wanganui after standing for a number of seasons, so it’s pretty clear we’re capable of matching the best in the world.”
The best Jetsprint teams in the world are competing in New Zealand this weekend. Photos courtesy/copyright Russell Puckeridge/Pureart Creative Images.
Mullan was undefeated in season 2015, winning on both sides of the Tasman, to claim his third consecutive Australian Unlimited Superboat crown, although his season wasn’t without challenges—he crashed a motocross bike mid-season and broke both his legs. Despite that, the gritty Victorian carried on to meet every challenger head-on, defeating the likes of former Australian title holders Mercier, Daryl Hutton and Brooke Avenell (Dixon). He also had the chance to battle one of New Zealand’s best—Rob Coley—defeating the Kiwi driver at every turn despite some spirited finals.
Mullan is expected to be a title contender in this year’s Worlds having tuned his twin-turbo 445-cubic-inch Chevy-powered Unlimited machine to a point where it almost appears to run on rails, something which in the past has been a hallmark of multiple world champion Peter Caughey.
“There’s no question that Caughey is the man we’ll all be chasing, he’s a multiple world champion and a local hero, he’s done what we’re all dreaming about achieving,” said Mullan. “But recently he showed he was only human, putting his boat hard out of the water in one of the New Zealand rounds, a rare error which only happens when you’re pushed, so that tells me he knows the opposition is coming and that he has a big job ahead of him this time.
With two Australian Unlimited crowns to his name, Australian-based kiwi Daryl ‘Nutsy’ Hutton is a crowd favorite and someone who relishes the tag of underdog.
“I’ve had a few mixed experiences with the World titles in recent years,” Hutton said. “So I reckon it’s just about my turn.”
The last time Hutton contested a world title in New Zealand he was forced to replace an engine between rounds, bringing out of retirement his big-block 670-cubic-inch Chevy affectionately known as the ‘Big Chief’. The New Zealander has been running the engine in Australia ever since, but whilst one of the most feared powerplants in the world ten years ago, the ‘Chief’ has seen it’s last battle, Hutton admitting that the engine is now buried deep in the reservation as he turns back to a supercharged small-block 420-cubic-inch Chev with more than 1,100-horsepower for this year’s assault.
“I don’t think we’ll have the most powerful engine, not by a long shot, but we’ll give it a fair old crack,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk about this year’s Worlds, and a lot of posturing, but like any of these things, we’ll see what happens when qualifying starts at Meremere, then all the talking will stop and we’ll see who’s really got the goods.”
For Mercier, the 2016 World Championships is being billed as the shark boat’s “One Last Bite” with the former Australian title holder and reigning World No. 2 looking to go out in style.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for more years than I care to remember, and have been close to the front on a number of occasions. I like New Zealand, and I like the challenge of the Worlds, and this year I think I’m going into it with the best chance I’ve had yet, but to be honest, we don’t know what the locals will bring out. They have the advantage of being able to run those venues regularly, whereas we’ve been in and out of the place over recent years, but based on the exploits of some of the best drivers New Zealand has to offer competing against us in Australia, I think we’ll be there.”
Joining the three Unlimited Superboat title holders in the field will be West Australian mother-and-son pairing Cheryl and Jamie Welch, the Natwel Racing duo making a return to the world titles after a mixed run in the U.S. their last time out.
Jamie was one of the revelations of the 2015 Australian Championships, ultimately claiming third in the points race after a string of podium results across the season against some seriously impressive competition, whilst Cheryl has always been a consistent finisher, the team could be a podium place-getter if the expected fireworks between the top guns forces the front runners out of the water at any point.
“This event is serious,” Mullan explained. “There’s no margin for error, so it’s about being fast but consistent, the last thing you need is to fail to finish, that will be game over.”
Whilst the Unlimited field of 21 boats will provide plenty of action, the International Group A field will also be hotly contested. There will be just four Australian crews contesting the Worlds this year, but what a list it is, three of those drivers sharing nine Australian titles between them.
Leading the charge will be recently crowned 400 Class (Group A) Australian champion Mark Garlick, the four-time national title holder will make his New Zealand debut at Meremere but is excited about the prospect.
“We were going over the entry list the other day, and it looks like we’ll have the oldest boat in the event,” Garlick quipped. “It’s no matter, it’s still good.”
Garlick showed in season 2015 that there’s life in the old dog yet, the three-time 350 Class champion taking the title from outgoing champion—2014 400 Class champion Jake Garlick.
“One of the proudest moments in my life,” Garlick said. “The only thing I think that will top that is me standing on the top step of the World Championship podium with Jake standing the next step down. Honestly, we’re going out to try and win the event, and I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t. There’s some strong competition, but we’re ready for the challenge.”
One of those challengers has been a very closely kept secret in recent weeks, with two-time Australian 400 Class champion Brooke Avenell recently revealing that she will jump back behind the wheel of the No. 12 Sprintec she took to multiple championship victories alongside new owner Jesse Watkins.
“Dad was keen to bring our Unlimited boat, but we had delays sourcing engine parts in time,” Avenell explained. “So Jesse and the Kanaris Engines team were kind enough to invite me along to have another crack at the Group A title,”
“I’m looking forward to it and hope the experience I’ve gained from running in the Unlimited class will help me because I’ve got some unfinished business in Group A, especially after finishing second in the Worlds the last few times,” she continued. “I’m under no illusions though how tough it will be as there are some pretty serious challengers, some of whom are as fast as the Unlimited teams, so it’s not going to be easy.”
Whilst disappointed not to be a part of the Unlimited field, Avenell admits she’s not going to miss a second of the action on track, and happy to be able to watch it unfold from the bank.
“The depth of talent in the Unlimited field is incredible, with the best field of boats ever assembled, so the finals are going to be intense—it’s going to be fast,” she said. “I think it’s probably going to see a number of boats out of the water, and it’s going to be exciting. As to who could win, I think there’s at least four teams with a real outright chance, but there could be as many as five or six more that are capable of winning if the top teams strike trouble”
The opening round of the World Championships gets underway at Meremere in the northern Waikato region of the North Island of New Zealand with opening qualifying on Saturday, 23 January, before the first finals on Sunday.