By Denis Bourbonnais
New boat, new sponsons, new beginning… If one driver wishes for the return of the Hydroplane Racing League (HRL) races post-pandemic, it is Jean-François Latour.
The Salaberry-de-Valleyfield resident had just acquired a hull flanked by the latest Henderson sponsons when the 2020 season was cancelled last April. As all the other drivers, Jean-François now hopes that the North American health situation will be favourable to a partial return to the racecourses this year on the powerboating circuit.
The 43-year-old competitor is impatiently awaiting the launch of his new “Joker” F-8 in the Formula 2500 class. Formerly Sébastien Leduc’s “CS-100 limite” and Maxime Lemieux’s “Make-it Rain” S-912, originally built by Jean-Guy Leboeuf, the boat was revamped and now hopes are high for the driver who made his debut behind the wheel of a hydroplane in 1999.
Son of multiple championship winner Gaétan Latour, he met his fair share of success on the powerboating racecourses from his very first laps. However, the last few years were plagued by misfortune and, in June of 2019, Jean-François was involved in an accident which he qualifies as the worst he had in two decades of racing.
The crash happened in Long Sault (Ontario) when the “Graf-X” S-6 driven by Yves Villeneuve veered into his lane. Jean-François could not avoid the impact and, in addition to sustaining injuries, he was not able to return at the helm of the damaged boat. His hydroplane, the former “Bateau sans nom” CS-109 of Dominic Maisonneuve, a hull built by Jimmy Shane over 20 years ago, was retired as a result of weathering.
His love for hydroplane racing however took over and Jean-François had to be part of the 81st Régates de Valleyfield. The Valleyfield-born driver borrowed Dominic Billette’s “All In” and the “S-22” was going to become the “Joker” S-8 for the event. It was Jean-François Latour’s last laps and it is why he cannot wait for a fresh start in the rejuvenated “Joker” cockpit.
Jean-François still remains realistic regarding his chances to hold his own against the fastest drivers in the F-2500. “I am going from the smallest boat in the class to the largest. There is a lot of work to be done for the boat to be competitive against guys who are on top of their game. I want to try the boat as soon as I can to adjust it for 2021 if racing happens. For 2022, a top 3 would be a nice ending to my career,” mentions the driver who admits that the financial aspect of the sport is starting to weigh on him.
“Unless I get a major sponsor, it will be hard to continue. My father (Gaétan) builds my engines and manages to do a good job. I can save money there, but financially, it is almost impossible for us to keep up with the American competitors. It could be the end unless someone wants me as their driver,” admits Jean-François.
Passion passed down
As many other hydroplane racing families, Jean-François was at home in the pits as a kid, following his father Gaétan, who had a fruitful career as a driver/owner in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The son won his first race in the “Joker” CE-7 in the 5-litre class at the Syracuse (N.Y.) event in 1999. Jean-François then became the driver who won the last 5-litre class final held in Ville-Marie in Témiscamingue.
In the 2000s, Jean-François had to compete in the 5-litre with highly regarded champions such as Patrick Haworth and Eric Labelle. He stepped on the podium numerous times, but luck was not always on his side, like, for instance, at the Régates de Valleyfield in 2005, when he crossed the finish line before everyone else in the final, but learned he had been penalized.
In 2004, Jean-François was in great position at the Hampton (Virginia) event, when he fell victim to a malfunction. The following year at the Cambridge (Maryland) world championship, he won the qualifying heats, but victory eluded him in the final. In 2006, he dominated a final during 4 laps before Eric Labelle took the victory.
More recently, in the Hydroplane Racing League, he twice won the consolation race in Formula 2500 to go straight to the final heat. In 2015, Jean-François grabbed the 3rd position at the Régates de Saint-Félicien and stood out aboard Mike Grendell’s “S-790” in 2.5-litre.
Let’s hope that stars do finally align in the HRL for the driver who has undeniable talent and whose experience is an asset. Jean-François is the father of Nicolas, 23 years old – one of his boats was called Nico – Kloé, 15 years old and Angélique, 11 years old. Another hydroplane driver whose passion for the sport was passed down from one generation to the next.