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America's Cup Rialto: Feb 12 - Into the sharp end of the two Cups

by Richard Gladwell, 12 Feb 12:23 GMT 13 February 2021
INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa - Round Robin 2 - Hauraki Gulf - January 17, 2021- Prada Cup - 36th America's Cup © Richard Gladwell /

We are now very much into the sharp end of the 36th America's Cup, with the Challenger Final due to get underway on Saturday, and there are now only three weeks left until the start of the America's Cup Match.

While the past three weeks have been drama filled, the teams are still going up a very steep learning curve in terms of speed development and racecraft in the AC75 class. In some ways it's a similar situation to San Francisco in the 2013 America's Cup, where both teams made substantial performance gains over the 19 race series, after sailing a rather limited Louis Vuitton Cup series.

But in the sometimes bizarre universe of the America's Cup, the top team from the challenger selection series, Emirates Team New Zealand sailed only 11 contested races in San Francisco, but winning all by comfortable margins. INEOS Team UK win the Prada Cup Final series 7-0, they will go through to the America's Cup Match also with only 11 contested races. Normally the six races from the Auckland round of the America's Cup World Series would be added to the British team's race count, but their performance in that series was abysmal, and counting the races sailed is a statistical distortion.

Should Italy's Luna Rossa win through the Prada Cup Final, then they will go through with a lot more racing with six races from the ACWS, four from the Round Robin, four from the Semi-Finals, and at least seven from the Finals - that's a minimum of 21 contested races, maybe more. INEOS Team UK could have just 11 contested races. The Defender Emirates Team New Zealand will just have the six contested raced from the ACWS.

While there has been seven days of Practice Racing, the Challengers didn't appear to take these races that seriously. ETNZ were in for all the contested racing they could get, but it takes two to tango, and the Challengers weren't keen to dance with the Kiwis. It was different situation for the unscheduled two days of Practice Racing to check the Race Management System was working, where there was more intensity by Challengers and Defender

The teams are desperately missing the experience from the two America's Cup World Series regattas scheduled for late April and early June, which would have allowed the AC75 to come to Auckland as a much more mature and developed class.

Too often the racing has been marred by a race determining operational error - often related to the foil control system. When these boats come off their foils and try to resume flight in lighter winds, they look like they are trying to climb out of wet concrete. The preliminary regattas would have highlighted these issues and in the intervening time more robust design solutions could have been put in place and tested properly, without the additional racing and points pressure inherent in a very tight challenger selection series.

Some will claim that putting teams under pressure what the America's Cup is all about, or should be.

However the COVID pandemic has affected all teams differently, and after being stuck in Florida, with five months of no-sailing, there is no doubt that fate dealt American Magic the poorest hand.

At the other end of the scale, Emirates Team New Zealand lost only five weeks - fortuitously because they had made a decision that was very wise in hindsight with a development boat, and could continue their on the water test program almost without missing a beat - while their AC75 was on its way to Italy and return, without even getting wet. There's no luck in that strategy, a Plan B enabled them to pivot/pirouette, as they had to do so many times in the course of the last America's Cup.

Luna Rossa had a relatively steady build up. They didn't have to leave their base during the European summer, but of course did have a significant handbrake applied to their program with the appalling impact of the COVID pandemic in Italy and the COVID epicenter in Bergamo where their boats were built.

Somewhere in between the Kiwis and American Magic, lies INEOS Team UK who were caught in the pandemic fallout, but managed to keep some momentum running. They emerged with a second AC75 that had some serious design and configuration issues, which were made amply displayed in the America's Cup World Series in mid-December.

The remarkable feature of the AC75 class, maybe like no other, is that they seem to be very responsive to demon-tweaking by component designers. The performance turnaround on INEOS Team UK in just a month is unprecedented in my America's Cup experience, maybe others will differ. But certainly it is unusual.

In this regard, the AC75's is certainly a lot different from the previous America's Cup Classes - be they 12 Metres, IACC, AC72's and AC50's where a bad design was quickly labelled as such, and forever condemned.

But with the sort of performance turnaround possible with the AC75's, it makes picking winners very difficult indeed, both for the Prada Cup Finals and America's Cup Match itself. It seems that the AC75 form book gets re-written each round.

To date the Prada Cup events have been much shorter, sharper and more brutal than anyone anticipated. The price of an operational error will be very high - particularly if that breakdown occurs in the first race of the day, and is one that can't be easily repaired. Hopefully in the Prada Cup and America's Cup Match won't be determined on the basis of first day breakdowns.

Quite why the 15 minute timeout was not been extended beyond the Round Robins, was hard to understand, particularly in previous Cups where it has been possible for a lay day to be called by competitor - even with no better excuse than just to wait a day on the basis of a better weather forecast. However it is now back in for the Prada Cup Final and the America's Cup Match itself.

The arm-wrestle in the Match looks like it will be a trade-off between any boatspeed advantage the Kiwis may have, versus the race-sharpness that the successful Challenger will acquire during the Prada Cup Finals.

Challengers and Defender are in a similar place for two-boat testing.

The Protocol rules require that ETNZ has to own any AC75 that it choses to train against - and can only do so when the Challengers are actually racing. Reassembling Te Aihe - even with electric winches as a trial-horse, isn't an option.

The only work around is if they recommissioned their development boat Te Kaahu, which also looks very unlikely. But if the Kiwi's do so, they have unlimited two-boat training time with Te Kaahu, as under the Protocol she is not long enough to be classified as a Surrogate Yacht.

The Challengers can only two-boat test (against each other) during racing. Maybe that is viable, however with vital points on offer, testing new design developments during a Final Series carries a high risk.

One of the disturbing/interesting statistics from both the Round Robins and the Semi-Finals is that they have been both won by a single team winning all its races. If that trend continues, then the Finals will be over in less than a week of elapsed time or three and a half days of racing time.

But enough of the What-if's. On Monday we'll have some of the answers.

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