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America's Cup: Ainslie confident Brits on right track for Cup

by Richard Gladwell Sail-World NZ 12 Jul 05:49 BST 12 July 2019
Sir Ben Ainslie - Principal and Skipper - INEOS Team UK © INEOS Team UK

After an indifferent performance at the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda, INEOS Team UK skipper Sir Ben Ainslie is confident that the British team has been turned around.

All three so-called Super Teams who have challenged for the most prestigious trophy in Sailing are nearing the launch dates for their AC75 yachts.

The 75ft radical foiling monohull yachts have never been previously raced, or indeed sailed, and the moment of truth is nigh.

The three Super Teams are expected to launch in August, with the Defender Emirates Team New Zealand working to a later schedule ahead of the onset of the Kiwi summer. The fourth Challenger Stars & Stripes Team USA is yet to restart construction of their single AC75 race yacht.

"We're going well - like all the other teams we are working incredibly hard getting this first boat ready to go in the water," Ainslie told Sail-World from the team's base in Portsmouth, UK.

"We are just waiting for the foiling arms to turn up and get those into the boat."

"The AC75 launch has been our big focus. There is a lot of work going on. We are happy with the way the team has been evolving."

Recognised as the most successful Olympic sailor of all-time, the 2021 America's Cup will be his fifth.

Ainslie was a late but vital addition to the afterguard of Oracle Team USA in the 2013 America's Cup and is credited as being one of the key changes made for what turned out to be a successful Defence.

Land Rover BAR was the first British America's Cup Challenge since sailing in the 2003 Cup in Auckland, and it was perhaps not surprising that the new team was off the pace in a couple of key areas.

"There were many things we learned from Bermuda," Ainslie said. "The obvious ones were the technical side working with the new organisation - and not being able to get that correctly resourced and working properly as a group - as well as not having enough people with the theoretical research experience."

The team were eliminated at the Semi-Finals stage of Bermuda, by the eventual Cup winner, Emirates Team New Zealand. At that final media conference, Ainslie was able to report that all sponsors had signed on for the 36th America's Cup and the team would continue.

That backing gave the British team the vital ability to keep its momentum and conduct a review.

"As most will have noted there were the key changes that were made to the team coming out of the back of Bermuda, and moving on," Ainslie explained. "I have to say that the people who have come in - notably Grant [Simmer, CEO] and Nick [Holroyd, Chief Designer ] have had a massive impact on the organisation. We are very pleased with the way that has evolved."

One of the early changes was to bring Grant Simmer on board as CEO. “As team principal I had to lead the decisions on the back of Bermuda and was very happy to bring Grant on board, he takes a lot of weight of my shoulders,” Ainslie said.

Grant Simmer is one of most experienced America's Cup participants - both as a sailor going back to 1983 and as a team manager. A wily Australian who began his America's Cup career aged 26yrs as navigator on Australia II, Simmer was called in as CEO to Oracle Team USA about the time of the pitchpole of the team's AC72 wingsailed catamaran in October 2012. He stayed for the successful defence and then the loss in 2017. He joined up with Ainslie after Oracle Team USA's billionaire backer, Larry Ellison, decided not to return as a challenger.

In the 2017 campaign Sir Ben Ainslie he seemed to be carrying the team on his back - as skipper, helmsman and team principal as well as being the face of the team. Significantly his counterpart on Emirates Team New Zealand, Peter Burling had just one role - that of helmsman - and was able to give that function his full attention.

Nick Holroyd came in from Softbank Team Japan who was an acolyte of then-defending champion Oracle Team USA. He had worked as a designer and then design co-ordinator with Team New Zealand since 1997, and is on his sixth America's Cup campaign.

"It's really Nick, Grant and myself who run the team. We have a management group who head up the different departments and that is it."

"We try and keep it as simple as we can. We have a great team building on 2017, and we've made some key additions to that. I'm very happy with the group that we've got."

Another key move has the partnership with Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the richest man in Britain, who came aboard as sole backer after just a month of negotiation following a meeting with Ainslie in a pub. Ratcliffe is the CEO and majority owner of Ineos Group - a petrochemical company - now expanding into different industries. The America's Cup team, INEOS Team UK is one of three sports teams in which Ratcliffe is involved. Two of the Ineos group companies clothier Belstaff and the automotive brand Projekt Grenadier are listed as main partners along with a bevvy of Official Partners and Suppliers.

"Jim has a lot of input," explains Ainslie. "He meets with Grant, Nick and I quite regularly - sometimes socially but formally every couple of months, we catch up and run through the campaign."

"He is very engaged and really likes the technical side, as he has an engineering background. Jim is a fascinating guy and is both successful and determined. We are very fortunate to have him as a backer."

Test boat designed to be difficult

Last July, INEOS Team UK made the first real move of the now five teams entered in the 2021 America's Cup when they launched the first test boat - a 28ft foiling monohull, named T5 as the next in line after the four test boats built for the 2017 America's Cup campaign.

That name in itself points to the change in focus from 2017 - where several teams launched multiple test AC45's. For 2021 the Brits will have just one, and a lot less distraction.

"With a new concept of boat we just wanted to get onto the water, and really see in real-time how the boat concept performed", said Ainslie explaining why the team went for an early launch of T5. "Simulation is the key to it all, of course," he added. "But just the practicalities of how this boat performed on the water was important for us.

"Compared to some of the other test boats that we have seen out there from Prada and New York Yacht Club, we went for a much more simple hull form. It is just a standard boat (Quant 28) that was already out on the market.

"We got sailing on that quite early and evolved it over a 12 month period into the boat we were sailing in Spain over the winter. "

"That has been an incredibly useful exercise for us - both for the sailing and design teams to try an understand more about the concept - and what is going to be really important on the big boat moving forwards."

After the dates of the America's Cup World Series were pushed back by six months for several reasons, Ainslie doesn't believe that it would have been better to delay and build a bigger half-size (38ft long) AC75 test boat as did the New York Yacht Club team American Magic?

"With the schedule we have got, we really have to get cracking on the final version of the second boat - so getting those learnings in earlier has been really important. Our focus was getting on the water as early as possible. I think it was a good decision, but there is still so much to learn - both with test boats and with the real deal."

Early reports from observers on the Solent had it that T5 was skitterish, capsized and nosedived frequently, and on that basis, the AC75's would be unsailable?

Ainslie agrees that T5 is a handful for the sailing team, but expects the AC75 will be more forgiving.

"We made that boat [T5] difficult to sail because we wanted to try and find out what the limits were. Certainly, we want to be sailing the big boat under much more control than we are sailing T5, he explains.

"The big learnings have been in understanding the rig and the sail - which are very interesting with this new concept of the boat. We really wanted to get a head-start on how all that is going to fit. How we are going to control the rig and sail it, and also with the foil design - there is plenty going on with the foils", he adds.

"We get the data back from T5 after each test session, and that is really helping the designers to improve the computer simulation as well as design evolution. The more time we get on the water, the better we will be."

One of the big catch-up areas for all the teams is in the development of sailing simulators. Emirates Team New Zealand is believed to be at one extreme - where does INEOS Team UK sit?

"We have been trying very hard to catch up with Team New Zealand, in terms of simulation, and hopefully, we are close to that.

"We had a very advanced simulator in the last campaign, but of course a simulator is only as good as the test data that you are feeding into it," also noting that the British team are currently spending a lot more time sailing than the Kiwis.

"I hope we have got the right balance between sailing and simulation - time will tell on that one."

Ainslie is coy on releasing further details about their simulator or even its overall concept.

"The latest Artemis Technology simulator that we are seeing on SailGP is a really neat piece of kit. From my understanding of Team NZ's simulator, we would probably fit somewhere between the two approaches."

Asked if they have specific hardware that goes with the software, Ainslie says he "can't really talk too much about it - it's supposed to be secret!" he says with a chuckle.

"Our simulator is a really impressive piece of kit. James Roche [Performance & Data Analysis Team Leader] who came out of Mclaren F1 set it up and is still running it for us. He, along with his team, have done a fantastic job. "

"We take a lot from that. Clearly, it is a vital piece of development for the whole team."

"We have certainly identified areas where it needs development," says Ainslie in response to a question as to the degree of confidence they have in their simulator. "But again, it has been very useful to have had time on the water as well - that sailing time allows us more opportunity to validate the simulator and models."

He keeps his guard up in response to a question as to whether T5 sails with its ride/flight height controlled by computer - given that it sails with just two crew - one of who drives and the other trims main and jib. The implication is that flight control is automated.

"No!" he replies, accompanied by laughter. "No it doesn't," he says composing himself after the question which clearly brought to mind some of the more spectacular snafu's.

"With that part of the boat, we tried lots of different control systems - there is no one defined way of handling the boat."

"I can't tell you any more - sorry", he replies - laughing again.

GC32's providing a challenge

All five teams have gone in different directions with their wider sailing program. For INEOS Team UK is the GC32 program sharp enough?

"It has been brilliant. I couldn't have hoped for any more from it. We weren't really sure looking at what Sailing we should try and do in the different classes out there - from the Extremes of going for a TP52 campaign to smaller boats such as foiling Moths and the like."

"We got involved with the GC's last year, and it has been the perfect boat for us. It is physical. There are very good quality teams and sailors on the GC circuit. Despite being a one-design the GC32 is still quite tweaky in what you have to do to get the boat up to speed.

"For our sailing team and Rob Wilson our on the water coach - being able to get stuck into the GC32 has been frustrating at times, but also very rewarding and positive for the whole sailing team."

Maybe the answer to the question could lie in the results of the GC32 World Championship last month in Portugal, where the INEOS Team UK boat skippered by Ben Ainslie placed third. Ahead was Alinghi with former double America's Cup winner Ernesto Bertarelli on the crew list, and Team Tilt which featured current America's Cup champion, Glenn Ashby.

Initially, the GC32 program was a Youth Team sailing under the name of INEOS Rebels UK - and began as a development team for the AC75. It has shifted to allow the 14 named in the AC75 sailing team to be rotated.

"It has been great to rotate the guys through different positions to give them some time out racing and keeping their skills sharp. We could have just stuck with the same squad and had those guys tuned into the GC32. But in the overall and bigger picture it is better to keep rotating the guys through the program and keep as many up to speed as possible," Ainslie explains.

Foil arms delivery beginning to have wider impact

The point of the interview was to catch Ainslie's thoughts ahead of the launch of their first AC75. Originally no team was permitted to launch before April 1, 2019. Then delays over delivery of carbon foil arms, together with the advent of an unexpected three Late Challenges, six months after the original entry date, caused the America's Cup World Series to be delayed for six months.

The foil arm issues have been largely resolved, and the Challenger entry list trimmed back from six to four teams. The first of three or more America's Cup World Series are set down for Cagliari, Sardinia in April 2020.

Most teams are expected to launch in August/September 2019. Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli is the only one to announce a formal date - August 25, 2019. INEOS Team UK does not yet have a set date.

"We are just waiting for the foil arm delivery. There has been a slight delay recently but nothing too major - so once they turn up it will be a couple of weeks from there", Ainslie explains.

"The boatbuilders, designers and engineers have done a fantastic job getting the boat ready. It is no mean feat with the technology that is going into the boats and the scale of them.

"We are excited about getting the real deal out on the water."

"We will just get the boat going, and obviously there is a lot of system check-out to be done. We won't be doing an official launch ceremony for a while. We will get the boat out there and get cracking."

The delays over Challenges/Foil Arms/ACWS dates has an impact on the northern hemisphere teams, who will either have to winter over, at home, with their first AC75 or travel to another location - not a simple logistical event in itself, let alone for the work-up of a new boat of a type which has not been previously sailed. The Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand launches straight into the start of the Kiwi summer and then ships to Cagliari for the first ACWS regatta, probably in February.

"It is unlikely that we would stay in Portsmouth for the winter", Ainslie says. "But we haven't finalised that yet, so we are looking at the options at the moment."

Also up in the air is the date when the team will shift to their base in Auckland, and begin their final work-up for the 36th America's Cup. Again INEOS Team UK is largely in the hands of others - in a situation where the Defender will hold a massive advantage in sailing time out of Auckland.

"The Auckland date is dependent on the schedule next year," Ainslie explains. "We are looking at Portsmouth and Newport regattas as well as Cagliari. We will know once we get that schedule which could be as late as November under the Protocol. We then have to make our decisions around that. We are a little beholden to the Challenger of Record and Defender on that one."

The issues over the supply of the carbon foil arms - which are the "legs" on which the AC75 will sail - have been ongoing and have affected all teams, as under the Protocol, they are a supplied one-design part constructed by Luna Rossa's builder, Persico Marine in Italy. The canting mechanism which sits in the AC75 and raises and lowers the foil arm is also a one-design, supplied part, developed by Emirates Team New Zealand in Auckland. They have already been shipped to the teams for installation in the AC75's.

"It was a great process going through the initial [foil arm] structural failure testing, and then very collaborative the way the teams came together to come up with a new solution", Ainslie says. "There has been a lot of discussion with Persico throughout the whole process.

"It does have an effect, and we have to work everything around the foil delivery. It is something that is out of our control at this point. We try and help where we can, but until they turn up in the boatshed, we are somewhat limited."

The rejigged program and delays create the opportunity for more design refinement on both the first AC75 and the second raceboat, allowed to be launched after February 15, 2020.

How will INEOS Team UK use the additional time - refining Boat 1, or leaving that on ice in design terms and instead focussing on Boat 2?

"A bit of both to be honest", is Ainslie's response. "There is always a lot to be done - so we don't have people sitting around - we just divert them onto other things until the supply path for the foil arm sorts itself out - and we can get cracking once they are delivered."

AC75 is what it is

The supply of a design package to the remaining Late Challenger, Stars & Stripes Team USA, has been controversial and a relatively new move in the America's Cup.

"It is an interesting situation when people start selling design packages" Ainslie reflects. "How open is it? How does that deal really work?"

"I had an interesting chat with Grant Dalton, who was very open. He felt that it was very collaborative. It would, of course, be good for the Defender to have another team down there that they can use as a partner of sorts, despite not being able to line up on the water."

"From a strictly competitive standpoint we'd rather it wasn't happening, but if it means that there is another team involved in the event, then that's good from a participation standpoint."

Last month the head of Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, Patrizio Bertelli commented that he felt the AC75 was too extreme, implying that they would have preferred a boat of less complexity. Others have echoed his sentiments.

In the last America's Cup, Land Rover BAR was one of the signatories to the Framework agreement signed by all but the winning team, which called for the next America's Cup to be sailed in the same AC50 wingsailed catamaran, used in Bermuda. It was a cost-saving measure and one designed to get more teams into the America's Cup.

Ainslie is sanguine on the point as to whether the Kiwis should have gone with a less extreme monohull or stayed with foiling catamarans?

"It is what it is," he says in a rather Daltonesque response, indicating that he has maybe picked up some of the style of his former boss. (Ainslie was a tactician and then back up boat helmsman for the Grant Dalton-led Emirates Team New Zealand in the run-up to the 2007 America's Cup in Valencia).

"We've all been through the pros and cons of this new concept of the boat. That is the challenge. That is what we focus on - there is no point in wasting time on whether it is too complex or not. That's it."

"We just have to do the best job that we can. Frankly, it wasn't our decision. But that's the class. That's the challenge. Get on with it," is his unusually blunt response.

At the time we were in support of having a more collaborative approach to having a circuit over every two years and reducing the cost massively. We have seen that go ahead with Russell and Larry with Sail GP and really get some legs. I was of the opinion that was the right way to go. But Team New Zealand did an amazing job to win the America's Cup, and this is the direction that we and the event are now going. Again there is not any point in wasting time over what could have been?"

The new SailGP circuit using the AC50 type from Bermuda is the child of the Framework Agreement announced in late January 2017 at The House of Garrard, London, and proposed to cover the 36th and 37th editions of the Auld Mug.

Then a keen supporter of the Framework, how does he feel now about SailGP - now seen by some as a threat to the America's Cup?

"I haven't been to any of the events," he admits. "I have seen some of it on the TV. I don't have the right channel in the UK to be able to watch it!"

"I have seen little bits on the App, which is good.

"I think the sailing has generally been really good. I watched the last day of New York, which by all accounts, was good. The first day had more swirly winds."

"But all credit to Russell for continuing with that vision, and I hope that it is a success. Sailing really needs top quality circuits like SailGP to lift the profile of the sport. Also, I think it is great for young professionals to get a chance to come through as they are with that circuit."

"I'm a fan!"

Duchess of Cambridge to sail on on AC75?

Being British, the INEOS Team UK does enjoy the unique patronage of the Royal family.

The Duchess of Cambridge is the Patron of the 1851 Trust which is the official charity of INEOS Team UK. The trust uses professional Sailing to help young people expand their life opportunities based on science and technology around the sport.

"She is very much involved with the team and also incredibly busy with so many other Royal duties. But we'd love to try an get the Duchess out sailing on the new boat when possible."

HM, the Queen is also Head of State in New Zealand, which begs the question of whether there would be a repeat visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during the 36th America's Cup?

He wouldn't be drawn on whether she would be coming to Auckland. "I have absolutely no idea of what the schedule looks like. We shall see."

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