Please select your home edition
CoastWaterSports 2014

Up and down, inside-out SailGP

by Mark Jardine 16 Oct 2023 20:00 BST
USA SailGP Team helmed by Jimmy Spithill on Race Day 1 of the Spain Sail Grand Prix in Cadiz, Spain © Ricardo Pinto for SailGP

A criticism that is often levelled at Formula 1 motor racing is that it's too predictable. One team, or more often, one driver, dominates the racing. Red Bull's Max Verstappen this season is on 433 points with his team-mate Sergio Perez, his closest rival, an extraordinary 209 points behind.

Verstappen's domination is almost total, having won fourteen of this season's seventeen races held so far, with the other drivers openly saying they are competing for second place.

At first glance, SailGP could be regarded in the same way, with the Australian SailGP Team, helmed by Tom Slingsby, winning all three seasons so far and leading the Season 4 Championship by seven points, but there's a lot more to it.

This past weekend's Spain Sail Grand Prix in Cádiz, Andalucía showed just how topsy-turvy SailGP can be: winner of the previous two events, Sir Ben Ainslie's Emirates GBR, finished eighth, and Diego Botin's Spain SailGP team won Race 1 and finished last in Race 5, with a compete mix of results in-between.

In marginal foiling conditions errors are amplified and races have the potential to go inside-out repeatedly as the F50s go on and off the foils. Winning the start is regarded as key in sailing, and is also often pivotal in SailGP, but there were times, especially in the three-boat final race in Cádiz, where being behind on the start proved to be advantageous.

So, while Formula 1 is criticised for predictability, should SailGP be lambasted for its lack thereof?

After watching Sunday's racing, I was trying to think of a single other sport where there is a point when competitors can be travelling at such wildly different speeds as foiling and non-foiling boats. I have yet to think of one. For sure there are mismatches in sport, but this isn't the case here as the sailors are all top-class. This is where one boat has slightly more wind than another, enabling them to get on the foils and travel up to four times faster than their competitors.

The question is, does it make for good watching? I have to admit I was gripped by the racing, but was that just me trying to track the wind bouncing and swirling off the high sea wall in Cádiz? Did the United States SailGP Team deserve to take the event win after picking up a penalty just before the start?

As the winning skipper Jimmy Spithill said, post-race: "I'd actually prefer not to take you through the start; there was nothing pretty about it. I didn't see the boundary but as it turns out, that worked in our favour. For the teams in front at Mark 1 the wind had started to go light, so we were able to gybe and lead them out of there, and that was really the race."

Interestingly the Australian SailGP Team haven't yet won an event in Season 4, but they've recorded event results of 2, 3, 2, 2, 3 in the five events so far. Despite not winning, Tom Slingsby is SailGP's Mr Consistent, but as he freely admits he wants to be on the winner's stage.

The fiercely competitive Slingsby said after racing: "I'm sick of hearing it's good for the overall points at the end of an event, I want to hear: well done you guys have won. I understand it's a good result, but it's been five finals now where we haven't won. We haven't sailed well enough, and I need to do better."

In the lighter winds teams are developing different strategies for getting the F50s foiling earlier. Nicolai Sehested's ROCKWOOL Denmark Team seem to have found a mode which gets them up and away well, winning Races 4 and 5 on Sunday ahead of the top-three shootout, while Jimmy Spithill decided to helm and control the ride-height himself in the final race, putting two sailors on the grinders when sailing with four on board. It's tricky to say whether this tactic was decisive as it was their early gybe after the first mark which was the winning move, benefitting from seeing ROCKWOOL Denmark Team and the Australian SailGP Team fall into a light patch ahead of them.

Maybe the racing would have seen more foiling if the vast 29 metre wings were available, but these are out of action while the SailGP technical team investigate why Peter Burling and Blair Tuke's New Zealand team's wing catastrophically collapsed in St. Tropez. Until this is resolved the teams will be restricted to the 24 metre wings in light winds and sailing with fewer crew onboard to minimise the weight.

The big question for SailGP is how this looks to non-sailors. After all, their target is to appeal to the mainstream sports fan. The fans have certainly turned out in force at the European events and been loudly cheering for their home team. SailGP is made for TV and is gradually making progress at getting betters slots where casual viewers will pick up on it. Hopefully they can make sense of it.

I've talked to many sailors about SailGP and have heard the full range of opinions including love, hate, and indifference. My hope is that it is working commercially and for the TV channels, as any way we can get sailing in front of a wider audience is good. To persuade more people onto the water, and into sailing, is visibility. SailGP, while vastly detached from mainstream sailing, provides that visibility, and may be the first step for a person to decide they want to be a part of it.

Aspiration is a powerful thing and can provide the ambition and drive needed to make those difficult first steps in sailing. We, as sailors, should be behind SailGP, and all sailing that makes it to TV, as we need that visibility to increase the size of our sport. Who knows, maybe the next Tom Slingsby will be one of the young fans who chanced upon watching the Spain Sail Grand Prix. Time will tell!

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

Related Articles

From Hvar to Paris 2024
The Olympic Games are unique The Olympic Games are unique. Coming once every four years, it can be a once in a lifetime sporting opportunity. For the small Croatian island of Hvar, Paris 2024 is a first, as the island's first-ever Olympian will be competing, and he's a sailor. Posted on 23 Jul
Never again! (Except for next time…)
What's it like to take a Cruiser/Racer racing? And not just any old race What's it like to take a Cruiser/Racer racing? Not just any racing, mind you, but two of the world's most famous courses. The Transpac and the Hobart. This was the premise presented to Charles Ettienne-Devanneaux ahead of our most recent chat. Posted on 17 Jul
Whisper it quietly..
Don't say it too loudly, but the Youth Sailing Worlds are taking place next week Don't say it too loudly, but the Youth Sailing World Championships are taking place at Lake Garda in under a week's time. Posted on 9 Jul
It's upon us
Paris 2024 happens this month. Little wonder it seems like it has come back around quickly Paris 2024 happens this month. Little wonder it seems like it has come back around quickly, when this current quadrennial actually started in 2021. Still. Is what it is… 12 sailors comprise the Australian Olympic Sailing Team. Posted on 2 Jul
Make mine a Magnum
50 year old International Moth design gets a 21st century make-over In almost every respect, 'Magnum' was a 1970s classic, but 50 years on the Magnum Moth is about to get a 21st century make-over. Sailors wanting to join the growing Lowrider Moth fleet just have to ask themselves, "Do you feel lucky?" Posted on 27 Jun
Performance vs. Participation
Or Correlation vs. Causation? I've heard many a time that one of the reasons for a fall in participation in sailing is the increased performance of boats. Effectively, the skill level and athleticism required in high performance boats excludes a range of people from participating. Posted on 25 Jun
The latest kit for summer boating, rain or shine
Our pick of the latest kit Summer's finally here and the season is in full swing. Here's our pick of the latest kit for racing, cruising and enjoying the water, rain or shine. Posted on 19 Jun
It's just a stick
It was just like watching an enthusiastic kid It was just like watching an enthusiastic kid. Alinghi's Silvio Arrivabene was totally in the 'nothing to see here' mode, and moreover, was keener to get into the ‘maybe exceeding them' remarks about their targets. Did someone say, ‘Spinal Tap'? Posted on 17 Jun
Corinthian Spirit
The inaugural Corinthian J70 Worlds had a superb entry of 109 boats Sailing has gone through phases of being professional and Corinthian. Originally a pastime for the rich, then becoming a sport for everyone during the boom in the 1960s and 1970s. Posted on 11 Jun
Para, Inclusive and Open RS Venture Connect
We find out more ahead of the upcoming World Championship at Rutland, UK We speak to Dan Jaspers, who is responsible for International Sales and Business Development at the RS Marine Group, about the RS Venture Connect. Posted on 6 Jun