America's Cup Diary - July 2007

One of the intentions of the Version 5 rule changes to the America's Cup Class was to make the boats more similar in speed, and also to make it easier for the trailing boat to overtake downwind. The ultimate intention was to make the racing much closer and less predictable.

While Version 5 has indeed made the yachts much closer in performance, strangely this hasn't succeeded in producing any closely-fought series during the knock-out phases of the Louis Vuitton Cup. In the Semi Finals which we reported on in last month's Diary, BMW Oracle went down 5-1 to Luna Rossa, and Desafio Espanol went down 5-2 to Emirates Team New Zealand. Hardly ‘down to the wire'.

The much-anticipated Louis Vuitton Cup Final between Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa proved even more of a damp squib, with the Kiwis dominating the series 5-0. Actually the scoreline fails to do justice to some of the drama that went on during the series, not least in the first race where the Italian boat never trailed the Kiwi boat by more than 12 seconds all the way around the course, and finished just 8 seconds behind.

But the overall impression is that despite the close performance of the boats, the ACC class is failing to produce many heart-stopping moments. Now it remains for the America's Cup Match itself to do justice to Version 5 and see if it can break the trend of recent Cups, where the last two editions have been won 5-0. Alinghi is oozing confidence going into the final week before the Cup, and many pundits are gloomily predicting another 5-0 whitewash.

The Kiwis made the LV Cup Final against the Italians look very easy. After the intriguing Semi Finals where Luna Rossa cleaned out BMW Oracle in the pre-starts with some aggressive and merciless manoeuvring by the supreme young Australian helmsman James Spithill against the rabbit-in-headlights Chris Dickson, we were expecting more fireworks from Spithill against Dean Barker. The New Zealand helmsman had looked less than convincing in some of his pre-starts during the Round Robins, and against Desafio Espanol's Polish helmsman Karol Jablonski he had also come unstuck a couple of times.

However, Barker and the Kiwis put in some useful starting practice in the break between the Semis and the Finals, and in particular they seemed to have found a way of winding the boat up to speed in the final 10 seconds before the start gun in such a way that they had superior momentum to the Italians. While Spithill could be said to have won the start on a number of occasions, securing the desired side of the course and starting bang on the line at start time, the Kiwis seemed able to accelerate and launch off the line more effectively. Two minutes after the start, the Kiwi boat was nearly always in the controlling position.

The first race took place in the best breeze of the series, a good moderate wind of 15 to 16 knots, and ITA 94 looked every bit the match of NZL 92, with the Italians breathing down Kiwi necks all the way round the course for that 8-second loss. However, once the breeze dropped lighter for the remainder of the series, the boxy, square-sided Italian boat just didn't quite seem to be able to match the narrower, more rounded Kiwi hull for pace.

Perhaps this was why Brazilian tactician Torben Grael seemed reluctant to engage his American counterpart Terry Hutchinson in any close-quarters fighting. Then again, that has never been Grael's approach, even with things running in his favour. His free-flowing style of laissez-faire tactics served him well against BMW Oracle in the Semi Finals, with Grael's nose for better breeze giving him the upper hand on a number of occasions. And there is little disputing Grael's pedigree in a fleet race. He knows how to play the odds, the percentages. After all, he's the only man ever to have won five Olympic medals, two of them gold.

But Grael gives the impression of treating a match race as a two-boat fleet race. Find the better breeze and you'll beat your opponent, seems to be his philosophy. Terry Hutchinson on the other hand is a traditional match racer, and likes to keep the match as tight as possible. Hutchinson is the grim-faced Roundhead to Grael's flamboyant Cavalier.

On this occasion, the Roundhead squeezed all the life out of the Cavalier. Twice the Italians happily gave up the right-hand side of the start box in favour of finding better breeze on the left. When you do that, you'd better be darned sure that the wind has something special to offer over there, otherwise your opponent will make the starboard tack advantage pay when the boats meet at the first cross. Both times the Italians conceded the right, they paid the price as they saw the Kiwis climb up the inside of them with better breeze on the right.

However the most criminal waste of an opportunity came in the fourth match, probably the last real chance for the Italians to turn around a series where they were already 3-0 down. Off the start line a big separation developed between the teams, the Kiwis favouring the left and Italy favouring the right. When eventually the boats reconvened in the middle of the course, ITA 94 was four boatlengths ahead, Grael's gamble paying off on this occasion. But rather do as Hutchinson would have done and trade some of that lead for a tight cover on the Kiwis, Grael allowed a second smaller split to open up between the boats. At the second meeting the Kiwis had closed to less than two boatlengths. Grael called for a tack ahead - but well to leeward - of the Kiwi boat, allowing the New Zealanders to hold their course on port tack.

This was a peculiarly unaggressive manoeuvre - even by Grael's standards - and when a small left-hand windshift came in, the Kiwis climbed above the Italians and moved into the lead. That was the match won and lost right there, and that incident said so much about this series. Hutchinson treats match racing like a boxing match, Grael like an intricate dance. While the Brazilian had been able to samba his way around Chris Dickson who was tripping over his own feet in the Semi Finals, Hutchinson just kept on giving Grael a bloody nose. The Roundhead prevailed.

When the New Zealand team won a fifth and decisive match against the Italians, the usually tight-lipped, laconic Kiwis finally let their emotions rip. Dean Barker punched the air for the first time in Valencia, and that evening at the press conference you could see that winning the Louis Vuitton Cup had gone a long way to laying the ghost of that 2003 humiliation to rest. From losing the America's Cup 5-0, he had just won the Louis Vuitton Cup 5-0.

Barker is one of the few key members of the 2003 debacle to have retained his job, and the shy skipper has worked tirelessly to prove he was worthy of his shot at redemption. Asked why this team should succeed against Alinghi where the previous one failed so badly, Barker responded: "There are fundamental differences in this team to the team that lost the Cup in 2003. I've got a huge amount of confidence in the team and the guys on the boat, and we have managed to step up a level for the Louis Vuitton Final. The challenge is now to stay focussed and take another step going into the America's Cup."

After their stunning victory over the Italians, Kiwi confidence was riding at an all-time high, yet most neutral observers were still expecting Alinghi to win The Match through superior boatspeed. How could the Swiss team be so sure of their pace? Well, they have had the uncustomary benefit of doing some training and racing with the Spanish and Italian teams, of benchmarking their performance against the two teams that had just lost to the Kiwis. In the view of traditionalists, this is all highly irregular, having the challengers working in cahoots with the Defender. But the reason is simple enough to understand, and says a lot about how much more commercial the Cup has become.

The Spanish and Italian teams will find it much easier to keep their sponsors if the Cup stays in Europe. If New Zealand were to win the Cup, much of that commercial momentum built up in Valencia could be lost, with sponsors unlikely to be so keen to pour their millions into an event on the other side of the world. Not only that, but the New Zealand team CEO Grant Dalton has said it is highly likely they will reintroduce much more stringent nationality rules to the Cup. Ernesto Bertarelli, head of Alinghi, is up in arms at this suggestion. You can see both points of view. The top America's Cup teams are dominated by Kiwi talent, and New Zealand and the USA are probably the only two nations that could field world-class teams constituted entirely of home-grown sailors. Switzerland would certainly not be able to do the same, which would bring the Alinghi dynasty - in its current form, at least - crashing down.

The America's Cup Match is looking exciting not so much as a sporting event, but as the determinant of the whole future of the Cup. A lot is at stake here, which is why even when the racing is one-sided, it is never less than enthralling.

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