Formula 40 reborn?

We look at Volvo's new Yves Loday-Mitch Booth conceived 40ft one design catamaran class

Thursday May 12th 2005, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected
In the mid-1980s with costs spiralling out of control in the Class One offshore multihulls - at that point 85ft long behemoths - some bright sparks in France came up with the concept of Formula 40, a multihull built to a box rule - trimaran or catamaran, with 90sqm upwind sail area, 180sqm downwind and a minimum weight of 1,800kg.

The race program was originally conceived along the lines of the Figaro class, with a mixture of singlehanded and fully crewed events, inshore and offshore. Some of the top names competed - Loick Peyron, Philippe Poupon, Yves Parlier, Michel Desjoyeaux, Roland Jourdain and the two time champion of the class Jean le Cam with his series of Biscuits Cantreau tris. From outside of France campaigns were launched by Alan Wynne-Thomas and US Tornado silver medallist Randy Smyth, the 1986 championship winner and ultimately Jo Richards and Stephen Fein fielding their Full Pelt trimaran.

Sadly costs spiralled out of control, were not checked and with the French economy on the decline the class lasted three years before blowing itself apart, most boats ending up on the Swiss lakes. This was followed by the even shorter-lived ProSail catamaran circuit in the US.

Yesterday's announcement of the Volvo Extreme 40 is something which multihull sailors have been waiting more than a decade for... Yes, the class has clearly been born from the minds of Tornado sailors - it is one design catamaran, much like a Tornado scaled to X2 (in fact the original name for the boat was the Tornado 40) - but the boat is state of the art in terms of catamaran design and build and the one design aspect will achieve what the Formula 40 singularly failed to do in curbing cost escalation. Herbert Dercksen, Chief Executive of the class aside from being Mitch Booth's long term Tornado crew is an entrepreneur and marketing man having created and developed the Swiss watch company TNG and with Volvo's agreement to get involved and use the boats to provide added entertainment at stopovers of the Volvo Ocean Race, the class is off to a strong start.

"Mitch and I we talked about it two years ago," says Dercksen. "It has always been there, the idea. At the end of the day we said, ‘we should just do this’. We went and sat with Yves Loday, and he had the same feeling. He also came from the Formula 40 period so he said ‘why not? Let’s do it.’ And now the plug is finished, and they start producing next week with the first set of hulls."

For easy international transportation the boat has been specifically designed to fit into a 40ft container. "We said ‘okay, we want to bring the boat to the public’ and public is not only in one spot, it is all around the world," says Dercksen. The boat has been designed so that it will easily break down, the beams demounting from the hulls and the wingmast breaking down into two parts.

"Our brief to Yves was to create basically a blown-up beach cat that was capable of taking up to 10 but suitable for racing with four plus a non-participant that was easily handled and easily sailed," says Mitch Booth. "From there we have slowly been refining the specific use of the boat and how it will be sailed. It is really a short course grand prix racer, so it will have roller furler downwind sails rather than spinnakers. A spinnaker that has to be retrieved in any way is a lot of man power and not really suitable for the type of racing we are trying to create. So roller furler, self tacking jib and a very simple boat."

There will be a single traveller line and interestingly a hydraulic mainsheet, which Booth says will allow a fast dump of the main when required. "It tidies the boat up as far as ropes and winches are concerned. It is a purpose-built system by Holmatra. It is just perfect for the application we are looking for. It is fast enough. You need to dump it occasionally quite quickly and get it in quite quickly. There is a lot of traveller work on this sort of boat".

The 18.9m tall wingmast will have a relatively conservative section of around 320 x 140mm. "For manageability we said ‘let’s not go to something too big’," says Booth. "Obviously it has got to be strong enough. We didn’t want to go for a full wing section as in high winds it becomes difficult to manoeuvre the boat."

There will be three sails on board, genniker, jib and a mainsail with a flat top and two reefs. Initially sails will be made by one loft, probably Ullman Sails in California and will be carbon radial panel. Booth says they aren't going for moulded sails due to the time frame as they want some opportunity to recut the sails if required.

The daggerboards are straightforward up and down affairs, while the rudders are transom-hung and kick up to vertical. "It is much easier to pivot the rudders up and launch them that way. They kick up vertically so it is easy at the dock to not have to worry about the rudders hanging off the back of the boat," says Booth.

Performance-wise the numbers quoted yesterday are perhaps on the optimistic side. However Booth (below) says they are expecting the boat to fly a hull in 6 knots. "So you will be depowering pretty early after that. We estimate the top speed to be mid-30 knots".

The competition

Compared to the Formula 40 catamarans of the mid to late 1980s, it is interesting to see how technology has evolved in the last 15 years. The Volvo Extreme 40 is around one third lighter and has slightly more sail area, plus the sails will of course be state of the art, not be the heavy Kevlar reinforced affairs of the 1980s. The Formula 40 rule limited upwind and downwind sail area, and this evolved into near una-rigs with tiny jibs and towering masts (the height quoted below is for Randy Smyth's second generation F40).

Formula 40 Decision 35 RMW 40 Volvo Extreme 40
LOA 12.2m 10.81m 12m 12.2m
Beam n/a 6.89m (8.74m with racks) 7.85m 7m
Mast height  up to 20.42m n/a 18.6m 18.9m
Mainsail and jib 90sqm 122.3sqm 106sqm 100sqm
Mainsail and genniker 180sqm 212.7sqm 191sqm 153sqm
Displacement 1,800kg+ 1,200kg 1,200kg (target) 1250kg

Aside from sail technology the greatest leap has been in the construction. Formula 40s had clunky alloy wingmasts, whereas with the new Volvo Extreme 40 the rig is entirely carbon. Some Formula 40s, such as the second generation Morrelli designs, were built in carbon/epoxy but the minimum weight rule had been deliberately set high to avoid the use of exotic (ie expense) materials - ha!

In comparison the Volvo Extreme 40 is being built by the great Swedish creator of Tornados, Marstrom and is being built in carbon/Nomex in an autoclave, as Marstrom has built his M20 and Tornado catamarans.

"The strength to weight in an autoclave is quite a substantial jump," explains Mitch Booth, who back in the 1980s sailed a Formula 40 catamaran in Australia that never made it to Europe. "Rather than just baking the boat at a normal one atmosphere vacuum, the autoclave will allow the atmospheric pressure to change quite dramatically - to 2-4 bar or whatever you want - and you get a much stiffer boat and because it is stiffer you need less material, so it is much lighter".

Due to their tubular construction autoclaves are ideal for building long slender items like masts and catamaran hulls, but it is unlikely we will start seeing America's Cup boats built this way for a while. "The biggest autoclave that is available in the world at the moment has a 2.3m diameter," says Booth. "That why catamarans are perfect for this job and Marstrom has been using it for 12-15 years now. He was one of the first in the boating industry to employ the autoclave." Booth believes the Volvo Extreme 40 to be the world largest boat ever to have been built in an autoclave.

While Marstrom is constructing the large items the smaller gear such as boards, rudders, etc is being built in France by Heol, who build the widgets for the ORMA 60s as well as specialist parts for the French Olympic team's Europes and Finns. "Everything is carbon on the boat, there is no alloy anywhere - beams boom, spinnaker pole, rudder boxes, the lot," maintains Booth.

The Sebastien Schmidt-designed Decision 35 raced on the Swiss lakes is perhaps the most similar to the new Volvo boat in terms of its design and construction, but its rig is much bigger for lake sailing and it cannot be demounted. Hence the easiest way to transport the boat is fully helicopter. One area where the new Volvo catamaran may prove weak compared to the Swiss boat is in its forestay tension - the Decision 35 uses a flying centre hull to stiffen up the fore and aft footing for the rig.

It would also make sense to put on some device to help prevent pitching and nose-diving. At this stage Booth says they have no plans to add an RMW40-style T-foil to the rudder or a foil elsewhere to alleviate this. "They have enormous righting moment and leverage, so they are going to generate a lot of downward pressure on the leeward bow, but the designs are getting more and more manageable and are less tending to nose dive. I think that is partly because of the weight and the volumes of the boats are quite large for the weight these days."

Adding Volvo

The deal with Volvo was born of the Volvo Champions Race, a series in Germany close to shore for the high performance Olympic classes like the Tornado and 49er. "All the right people were together and we said 'this is something we should do in the Volvo Ocean Race stopovers'," Dercksen explains. "At the end, we had the boat design already, so we said 'why don’t we do it all together?' Of course it is not purposely built for the stopovers, but it is great we have an arena with so much public, with so much media interest where we can sell to and entertain the public."

The first Volvo Extreme 40 is due to launch in Sweden in early July. Five boats will be built before November and Dercksen hopes to have ten sailing by the end of 2006, although if demand is there this can be increased. "Of course we would have not just started the project with saying we’ll sell the boat. There are already boats sold," says Dercksen.

While all the present renderings are emblazoned with Volvo, the boats will be branded in their team/sponsor colours. Although the class is run independently of Volvo, Volvo have the name of the boat, much like Champagne Mumm have with the Mumm 30, and they are integral to the running of the class.

The first scheduled regattas for the class will coincide with Volvo Ocean Race stopovers. While our initial thought from yesterday's release was the Volvo Extreme 40s would be sailed in port by the Volvo Ocean Race skippers, in fact this is not the case. The 40s will be independently owned and racing will take place in a separate series that happens to run directly alongside the Volvo Ocean Race with its own skippers and teams, although there almost certainly will be an additional series or some form of participation set up for the VO70 crews. "There will be separate skippers, but there will be cross over with the syndicates," confirms Dercksen. "You can fill them as you want. That will be down to Volvo - they are going to come up with the format of the racing".

The boats are being sold to private teams or individuals - for example Booth and Dercksen will certainly have their own boat - although it is easy to imagine some of the Volvo Ocean Race campaigns buying them too.

The price of the boat, ready to race with container, sails and trailer, is 300,000 Euros. For the first five boats regatta fees are to be waived, and this could prove significant. Although details of it have yet to be announced there appears to be a cunning plan afoot whereby regatta entry fees include not only the shipping of the boat, but the transportation and accommodation for the crew and all the associated costs, even a salary for the crew. We await to hear more about this with interest.

In terms of the racing format Herbert Dercksen envisages it to be ultra-short course and inshore. "If you take a stopover like Rotterdam – you have a river which is very small, but it is a great arena to sail on. It is perhaps 300m wide and so we’ll have an arena of 300 x 300m where we will be doing the sail. How much closer can you come as a spectator to see that sort of sailing?" In our mind this sounds tiny for such a long legged boat.

This race style is different to the Formula 40s, which were originally conceived to have both inshore and offshore capability. "The Formula 40 had the potential to do longer stints than this boat is meant for," says Booth. "But it is certainly robust and capable of handling some pretty heavy air big wave conditions. Coastal is probably the absolute limit. I don’t think we would attempt the Atlantic or anything way offshore with the boat. It is so light and it is capable of flying a hull in such light air conditions, it could be a real handful in the middle of the Atlantic."

A Tour Voile-style race in these boats would be quite exciting, however there is absolutely no accommodation. "There is just a simple storage area under the cockpit floor for nothing more than your daysail kit," says Booth.

For the regattas the boat is set up to be sailed by four crew with an extra space for a 'non-participant' such as a someone from the media or a sponsor. Dercksen explains: "They can come on the boat and experience how we are doing our racing. Everyone wants to go with Michael Schumacher around the track - maybe at this point a little bit less because he has not got a good car... But that is what the philosophy of the class is - always we want to bring in one person who can experience the racing."

Once the Volvo Ocean Race is over, the boats will continue on their Grand Prix circuit with an international schedule driven by sponsor/media/spectator demand.

Although the Volvo Extreme 40 is taking up much of their time at present with Booth moving up to Sweden next week with Derek Clark to oversee the production of the boat, Booth and Dercksen are continuing to race the Tornado and will be competing at this month's SPA regatta, now called the Holland regatta.

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