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First look at a very new Cup

17 Dec, 2020

The Curtain Raiser

The first day of official racing at the Prada America’s Cup World Series had a slice of everything and provided a hint of what’s in store over the next three months. We saw the Defender Emirates Team New Zealand streak off into the distance in the opening match against the Challenger of Record Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. A punchy statement about the bar that has to be reached by anyone who fancies their chances for the Cup. Yet in the fourth and final race of the day we saw American Magic that did just that as they locked horns with the locals in a race that was proper match racing with gains, losses, a tacking duel, lead changes, tight mark rounds to defeat the Kiwis. And not only did they beat them, but for once we saw that the slick red boat and its crew are not infallible. American Magic had the better of the Kiwis in pre-start and held the advantage at the start, hitting the line on speed and on time, something their opponents failed to do. We saw ETNZ struggle up the beat too and heard over the crew comms hints of a problem with the mainsheet traveller and on lap two, a rare crash off the back of a rushed tack around the port hand leeward gate. I’ve watched every practice race so far and this was the first time we’ve seen the Kiwis flustered. But it didn’t last long. This team has plenty of speed and rarely drops the ball through manoeuvres and on the final leg managed to split sides up the final beat and get close enough to spook American Magic into a tacking duel. Tack by tack they reeled the American team in, and when American Magic overstood the last tack into the lefthand mark, it opened the door for the Kiwis who just managed to get into the zone first to get water at the mark. The protest buttons were pressed on both boats and it was American Magic that copped the blame. For whatever reason, ETNZ gybed away quickly but in the puffy conditions the American’s were on the breezier and better shifted side of the course and regained their lead to take a win by 12 seconds. For me, it was the most important race of the day, not because the home boys got beaten, but because of what it says about what is possible with these extraordinary boats. I’m delighted to see such a snub to the nay sayers who have refused to accept that the America’s Cup has always been a design race and is largely about pushing at the boundaries technology. (Don’t get me started.) This was a race that close racing, ridiculously high speeds, the top speed today was 49knots in no more than 16 knots of breeze. It was also a day for some stunningly images. Of course, one of the big talking points down here is of the British performance which seems to be struggling with all kinds of issues every time they go out. Until now it has been a clear difficulty in getting up onto the foils in the light. The precise wind speed doesn’t matter, the issue is that it seems they are the last to lift off. But today was different, control issues were at the heart of their problems. In the morning I was hearing rumours that the flight control systems were causing issues, a few hours later we saw it for real as Ainslie lost control through a gybe. “It’s completely locked out here, the rudder just lost grip,” he said over the crew comms as the boat rounded up. Although they recovered, they were having more problems getting Britannia around the course and in their second race, (the third of the day), they were forced to retire altogether when the canting control system failed. In the press conference afterwards, Ainslie was punchy in his criticism of the foil control system and software, a supplied component across the fleet. He even had a spat with Peter Burling. And while he clarified later on that the flight control issues were not their only problems and that fixing it would not see them instantly, ‘go out there and win races’, he was clearly frustrated. Interestingly, one of the questions from the press asked the other teams about their experiences with the system. Apart from ETNZ, all seemed to suggest that this area had/has been a problem. I have little doubt that breakdowns are going to be a big part of this Cup cycle, the more I hear about these boats, how they are engineered and how they are sailed the more I start to appreciate just how close to the edge they are technically. And it’s hardly surprising, you don’t often see ice yacht speeds aboard something the size of a mini maxi in conditions where the white horses have only just started to break. The world is seeing it for the first time and when it comes to the racing, so too are the crews. You can criticise by comparing to previous Cups if you like, but this is genuine new territory and unlike the one sided techno fests of previous Deed of Gift matches that promise loads and deliver little in the way of competition, today we saw what could be possible. And from my seat it was breathtaking.

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