America's Cup - April 2010

Louis Vuitton has been an integral part of the America’s Cup since the luxury goods company first gave its name to the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series back in Newport 1983. That close association continued up to Valencia 2007, but following Alinghi’s successful defence of the Cup, Louis Vuitton withdrew its backing.

It was no secret that Alinghi and Louis Vuitton had fallen out in a big way during the Swiss tenure of the Cup. It was mostly about money, but also about attitude. Ernesto Bertarelli presented his side of the argument in an interview I did with him in Boat International back in 2008. “The reason Louis Vuitton withdrew, and was so venomous about AC Management is that for the first time in the history of their involvement in the America’s Cup, they were presented with a bidding process,” he said at the time. “This bidding process for the rights of the event meant that for the first time in the history of their involvement, they had to pay for it.”

While Alinghi remained in control of the America’s Cup, there was no chance of Louis Vuitton returning to the competition. However it was clear that LV’s passion for the Cup burned as brightly as ever when it organised the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series just over a year ago. From there, a series of events known as the Louis Vuitton Trophy has come to fruition. The first of those took place last November in Nice. The new Italian team, Azzurra, beat the hot favourites Emirates Team New Zealand in a thrilling final.

A great event it may have been, with eight America’s Cup calibre teams coming to do battle in a round-robin match racing event on the Mediterranean, but with the outcome of the 33rd America’s Cup yet to be determined, it was hard to see what the future held for this fledgling series.

If Alinghi had defended the Cup successfully in February, the future of the LV Trophy series would have been very unclear. As it is, with BMW Oracle Racing now holding the keys to the castle, the Louis Vuitton events have taken on a much greater significance.

The Louis Vuitton Acts, the travelling tour of events from 2004 through to 2007, served as a fascinating and extended hors d’oeuvre before the main course of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series and the America’s Cup Match in Valencia 2007. While it is not fashionable to give Alinghi much credit for anything these days, Bertarelli and his team deserve recognition for dragging the America’s Cup out of those tedious days when teams trained behind closed doors, conducting endless rounds of in-house two-boat testing and never meeting any other team in competition until the main event. It was boring for the sailors, and a total turn-off for any potential sponsor.

ETNZ in action at the Louis Vuitton Trophy in Nice, New Zealand
© Paul Todd

The Louis Vuitton Acts obliged the challengers to race against each other, at exciting venues that took the Cup around Europe to France, Sweden, Sicily and back to Spain. Everyone loved the format. However, the bit that BMW Oracle objected to was the Defender granting itself the right to compete in a series that also formed part of the Challenger Series. It allowed Alinghi to check in on the competition, to get an accurate gauge of where the challengers were in terms of technical development. However, so dominant were Alinghi at times during the Acts series that if anything these regattas served more as a reminder to the challengers just how much work they had to do if they were ever going to get on level terms with the Swiss.

So what does this mean for the Louis Vuitton Trophy? If these new events are going to have any real meaning, then they are going to need to incorporate some real points that carry through to the eventual Challenger Series. The Acts had this, and it gave the Acts a significance that the Louis Vuitton Trophy events do not yet possess. However, if they do count for points, how then can BMW Oracle insert itself into these regattas without becoming guilty of the same thing that it had accused Alinghi of doing, or muscling in on the challengers’ party?

One answer could be to continue to use the old Version 5 boats, and to keep the new America’s Cup class - whatever that may turn out to be - purely for the next Challenger Series and 34th America’s Cup Match. That way, the Defender could compete against the potential challengers without the challengers having to reveal any of their technical progress to the Defender. After the technological whizz-bang of the 33rd America’s Cup, the Version 5 boats are looking very old school, but there is still a lot of money and resource tied up in these dated monohulls and this solution would give them a reason to exist in their retirement.

BMW Oracle, as it happened, couldn’t make it to the most recent Louis Vuitton Trophy, which took place in Auckland in March. They were rather too busy parading the Auld Mug on a victory tour around the USA. After the disappointment of Nice, this time Emirates Team New Zealand made the most of home advantage and defeated another Italian team in the finals, the new Challenger of Record for the 34th America’s Cup, Mascalzone Latino Audi.

We still know very little of the specifics of what Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison are planning for the 34th America’s Cup, but it does look increasingly like San Francisco will be the venue. And while Ellison may have spent the GDP of a small country to win the 33rd America’s Cup, he is sending out strong signals that he wants to bring the Cup back into the realm of not just the billionaire, but the millionaire, and indeed a commercially viable campaign that places no reliance on private patronage whatsoever. In an interview with Fortune magazine he said: “We'd make it a more attractive TV sport so we can sell TV contracts. We'll get the budgets under control so someone can come in and campaign for three, four, five million dollars. So the South Africans will come back. The Swedes will come back, not that they can't raise more money, but we'd want someone with a smaller budget to be able to build their boat, put together their team and be competitive. We'd like this to not be a matter of who invests the most money in designing their boat but who sails the best.”

Meanwhile, the Kiwis are not waiting around for announcements to be made. Grant Dalton, head of Emirates Team New Zealand, is to put his team into the next Volvo Ocean Race, starting end of 2011. “There is some certainty in the America’s Cup following BMW Oracle Racing’s defeat of Alinghi,” said Dalton. “It’s apparent that with the timing of the America’s Cup, either 2013 or 2014, ETNZ can comfortably integrate a Volvo campaign into its operations.”

Dalton also lent further weight to the rumour that Alinghi might also enter a team into the round-the-world race. “I think very soon you will see Alinghi announce their involvement," said Dalton. "It's a perfect one for them really to get their mojo and re-establish some credentials."



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