H1 Unlimited’s 2013 season opener will feature national champion Steve David and the Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison and runner-up Jimmy Shane and the Graham Trucking (above) but not Dave Villwock and the Spirit of Qatar (below). The Qatar was damaged by an engine fire last month at Doha, Qatar, and while Villwock escaped injury he will not be in the cockpit when the team returns to Doha Bay this week with a backup boat for the 2013 season opener. (Chris Denslow photos/H1 Unlimited)
H1 Unlimited’s 2013 season opener will feature national champion Steve David and the Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison and runner-up Jimmy Shane and the Graham Trucking (above) but not Dave Villwock and the Spirit of Qatar (below). The Qatar was damaged by an engine fire last month at Doha, Qatar, and while Villwock escaped injury he will not be in the cockpit when the team returns to Doha Bay this week with a backup boat for the 2013 season opener. (Chris Denslow photos/H1 Unlimited)
The "offseason" from 2012 to 2013 has only been three weeks but when the H1 Unlimited Series returns to the water this weekend in Doha, Qatar, there will be plenty of changes.

Two teams have switched sponsors, the winningest driver in the sport will not be in attendance and according to one news source, the series no longer has a title sponsor.

Such is the backdrop for the 2013 season opener which will kick off Friday morning local time and conclude on Tuesday as part of Qatar's National Sports Day.

Steve David and the Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison will begin defense of their latest national championship while seeking their first Oryx Cup UIM World Championship in their fifth attempt in Doha.

The field facing David has possibly dwindled by one. Dave Villwock's ride, the locally-sponsored Spirit of Qatar, suffered serious damage when a fire broke out in the engine compartment during the race last month.

The Ellstrom Family-owned team is still hopeful that they can get their three-time national champion boat on the water but if not, the Qatar Marine Sports Federation has already secured the Our Gang Racing Team entry, driven by Kip Brown, to serve as the Spirit of Qatar this weekend.

Our Gang Racing's normal sponsor, Red Dot Manufacturing, will not be absent but will instead jump to the Jones Racing Team. That group, driven by Jon Zimmerman, did not have a national sponsor last season.

Jimmy Shane is the defending champion of the Oryx Cup and will be back aboard the Graham Trucking. The rest of the expected fleet is: Mark Evans, Formulaboats.com; J. Michael Kelly, Miss Beacon Plumbing; Ryan Mallow, Fox Plumbing; Brian Perkins, Snoqualmie Casino; and Tom Thompson, Miss Peters & May.

The fire aboard the Spirit of Qatar was not the only problem the Ellstrom team faced at the last Doha race. Villwock was disqualified in one heat for deliberately destroying course buoys and on Monday, team owner Erick Ellstrom issued an official apology for that conduct that was published on the H1 Unlimited website.

"In the heat and frustration of racing, things happened on the race course in Doha that should not have," Ellstrom wrote. "On behalf of our entire organization, I want to offer our sincere apology to our race officials, our sponsor, our fans and anyone else who was disappointed or inconvenienced by the events that took place.

"All that's left to do now is put an unfortunate situation behind us and move forward with an assurance to everyone who follows our great sport that Ellstrom Racing will continue to hold every one of our team members to a high standard of conduct and sportsmanship."

One major change that has been reported but not confirmed is that the Air National Guard is dropping its title sponsorship after two seasons.

The website HydroNews.com reported the story on Monday citing several sources close to the organization. H1 Unlimited has not yet commented.

Regardless of whether there is a series sponsort, the sport has committed to run a full eight-race schedule in 2013, its largest calendar since 1999. After the season opener in Doha, the series will move to Sacramento, Calif., in late May/early June, to Madison in early July and be followed by races in Detroit, the Tri-Cities, Wash., Seattle, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and San Diego.

The Oryx Cup/UIM World Championship will begin with qualifying and the first sets of heats on Friday with heats two and three set for Saturday. After two days off, the fourth set of preliminary heats and the final will be run on Tuesday, Feb. 12.