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America's Cup: Day 3 - Italian nosedive brings Final to a dramatic end

by Richard Gladwell Sail-World NZ 2 Dec 2023 11:56 GMT 3 December 2023
Luna Rossa nosedives rounding Mark 5 of the Final Race - Day 3 - Preliminary Regatta - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - December 2, 2023 © America's Cup Media

Emirates Team New Zealand won the Final Race of the second America's Cup Preliminary Event after a close run battle for five legs, but which ended in an anti-climax on the final mark rounding.

The sea breeze had continued blowing at 15-20kts overnight in Jeddah, pushing up a challenging sea state, which proved to be the undoing of most crews at some stage of the three races.

Italian challenger, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli confirmed their booking for the second spot in the Final with a win in Race 7, heading off the USA and New Zealand and building a 20pt margin over the third-placed Alinghi Red Bull Racing. At 5 points for a win in the remaining race, that result could not be turned around by the Swiss, who were confirmed for the remaining place on the podium after Race 8.

Rounding Mark 4 in the Final, Emirates Team New Zealand held a six-second advantage over Luna Rossa and managed to keep their distance on the Italians on the upwind leg for a margin of around 100 metres.

At Mark 5, the final rounding mark in the six-leg course, the two boats split with Emirates Team New Zealand opting for the port gate and executed a controlled bear away in what looked to be a bigger seaway than previously.

Luna Rossa, co-helmed by the highly talented Ruggero Tita and 19yr Marco Gradoni, were going through the phase known in skiff circles as the "Valley of Death" as the crew round the mark and head downwind and the boat accelerates, in the AC40 case, from 30kts to 40kts. As they cleared the mark, the bow on the Italian boat went down, lifting the rudder elevator just clear of the water, precipitating the mother of all nosedives and filling the AC40 to cockpit level.

The boat speed went from over 40kts to just 2kts in the incident as the AC40 came to a total stop before popping back out.

That was race over for the Luna Rossa crew, who subsequently advised they were retiring from the race.

It was not clear at the end of the race whether the mishap was the result of a crew error, or the autopilot which automatically controls the foiling height. The devices were reported by the crews to have been at full stretch, on the previous day, Friday. In a comment during the race Luna Rossa coach Philippe Presti remarked that the boat systems were not as responsive as they should have been and were "super-hot". That situation could account for the Italian demise - which was not deserved, by the crew who had sailed very well despite being very new to the matchracing game.

Co-helmsman Marco Gradoni confirmed there were system issues on boat the Italian AC40. "We had some issues with the boat, but we were fast."

"Temperatures were up, and functions were not happening that fast," he added. That would appear to back up the video of the incident, which began treading the path through the Valley of Death, as the AC40 was level at the start of the maneuver but appeared not to be trimmed quickly enough, and started to go bow down - and then the rudder elevator cleared the surface of the Red Sea.

Mistakes were easily made - as Emirates Team New Zealand had shown in Race 7, when they fluffed a gybe while leading. The Kiwis porpoised spectacularly a couple of times with both foils coming clear of the water. Their boat speed dropped from 37kts to just 22kts in the process - sufficient to drop from first to fifth.

The Italian retirement brought what was up to that point an exciting final to an anticlimactic end. Leaving Emirates Team New Zealand to sail out the remainder of the course, and finish. The Kiwis were presented with the series trophy on the water in a slightly awkward process due to the rising sea state.

For skipper Peter Burling, and crew, the current America's Cup champions the win got a monkey off their backs, after finishing second to American Magic at the first Preliminary Event in Vilanova in mid-September.

This was also the last time all 2024 America's Cup crews will race each other in the AC40s - a boat which lived up to its pedigree in this regatta. But even so the event ended, for fans, on a somewhat flat note in that while the AC40 had revealed its potential, the show was over for the Cup crews, however it will be sailed in the Womens and Youth America's Cups, as part of the main event in October 2024.

Fleet Race 7

Emirates Team New Zealand got away to a flying start and looked to set to record another race win, however on Leg 2 at the first gybe to avoid the course boundary, they fluffed the gybe and had the AC40 leaping almost out of control in the awkward seaway. Their speed dropped from 37kts to 22kts - which was sufficient for Luna Rossa (ITA) and Orient Express (FRA) to come through to windward, and drop the Kiwis back into the turbulent air of the mid-fleet.

Italy took the lead at the second mark and extended to win by 11 seconds from American Magic, with New Zealand recovering to place third. The British team INEOS Britannia was in contention for third overall after the racing on Day 2 but sealed their fate with a poor start - where they were caught well below the line. They started below the fleet and headed out to the right-hand side of the course, finishing fifth, with the Swiss in sixth place.

Fleet Race 8 -

With the two Finalists already decided Race 8 was one for the Kiwis and Italians to stay out of trouble and for the other four teams to grab bragging rights for the next ten months. Luna Rossa threw caution to the wind and started on port. American Magic's startline jinx continued, with the Umpires calling the US team's "Ghost-Boat" about half a boat width on the course side of the start line. The standard penalty is to drop back 75 metres, keeping them near the fleet's back end for the rest of the race.

It was Alinghi Red Bull Racing's turn to shine, leading the fleet for the first two legs despite a muffed gybe as they avoided the right-hand boundary. Unlike others, they managed to recover and retain their lead. The Brits fluffed their gybe as well but came close to a capsize - from which they escaped but remained at the rear of the fleet.

New Zealand had a good race - from the perspective of an end-to-end win, but also the way they were able to tactically control the second and third-placed Swiss and Italian teams, who were within a few seconds until midway up Leg 5 when the Kiwis were able to step away for a comfortable win.

Fleet Final -

Emirates Team New Zealand entered the Final as the most experienced match-racing team of the two. In fact, the Italian co-helmsmen were said to be sailing their first match race. Ironically, their match-racing Top Guns, Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni were back in Cagliari doing more testing in the LEQ12.

The Kiwis got onto the stern of the Italian novices and had control of the start, pushing them and extracting a penalty from the pre-start, and exited the first tack with a 100-metre advantage. Although the Italians were believed to be faster than the Kiwis upwind, their advantage wasn't evident. Although there was one brief lead change called on Leg 2, the Kiwis came back to be 30 metres clear on the next cross and then worked up a handy 75-100 metre lead, which they held for most of the race - extending out to an 11-sec margin at the windward mark for the final time.

A few seconds later, the Italians nosedived, filling the cockpits of the AC40, and they elected to retire - leaving the Kiwis to cruise to a series win.

Overall Points after Race 8:

  • NZL 64pts
  • ITA 49pts
  • SUI 35pts
  • USA 28pts
  • GBR 26pts
  • FRA 20pts

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