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Zhik 2024 March - LEADERBOARD

America's Cup: Brits ring the changes to bolster Cup program

by Richard Gladwell/ 4 Jan 09:46 GMT 4 January 2024
Ben Ainslie, INEOS Britannia CEO and Skipper, stands in front of T6 in Palma de Mallorca, the team's base for their Winter Training Camp © C.Gregory/INEOS Britannia

The announcement that the most successful sailor in Olympic sailing history, Ben Ainslie (GBR), is stepping down as driver of the Emirates Great Britain SailGP Team comes after a series of setbacks in the INEOS Britannia America's Cup program.

He will be replaced immediately in the Emirates GBR SailGP team by two-time Olympic gold medallist and fellow Finn class sailor Giles Scott.

News of the Emirates GBR SailGP team change were revealed on Thursday in an "exclusive" interview with Tom Carey of the Daily Telegraph, ahead of the media statements from SailGP and the team. At the time this story was written, Sail-World NZ had not read the story, and indeed did not do so until 36 hours after the publication of this story.

The Daily Telegraph story confirms the facts, and comment behind the change contained in this story, but doesn't mention (presumably for competitive reasons) the setbacks and time lost with the four incidents involving INEOS Britannia's test boat, T6. Tom Carey does cover the disappointment of the Brits SailGP strategist, Hannah Mills, the triple Olympic medalist, at not being given the helm/skippers role on the SailGP program. However she was already CEO and sailor of Project Athena, the British AC team's Youth and Womens program. While the SailGP role may have been seen by some as a clarion cry for womens sailing, with a young family the additional SailGP responsibility would have just replicated the situation, from which Ainslie had tried to extricate himself. He discusses this aspect at length in the Telegraph story.

Interestingly, Ainslie's announcement follows a similar call made by Luna Rossa co-skipper and double America's Cup champion Jimmy Spithill, who announced his departure from the skipper role in the USA SailGP team last month, presumably to focus on the Italian AC program of which he is a co-helmsman.

Those with longer memories will remember the controversy in the 2013 America's Cup, when Emirates Team New Zealand boss, Grant Dalton both sailed on the boat and had the CEO/MD role ashore. He stepped off the boat for the following Cup - which the Kiwis won in a canter. Before him Peter Blake had dual management and sailing team roles - which he carried off for the win in 1995. Indeed his presence on the boat was hailed by the team, as a positive factor - being able to understand at first hand as to what was happening on board - and where scarce campaign funds should be spent to get the best results. However Blake was an exceptional sailors and manager - but even he stepped off the boat for the 2000 America's Cup win in Auckland.

And certainly neither Blake or Dalton tried to run three roles, including sailing, across two separate campaigns and race circuits.

Ainslie, the majority owner of the Emirates GBR SailGP team, says in the two media statements that it is "time for the next generation to come through". He will remain as CEO of the SailGP team.

Two statements were issued by the SailGP and Emirates GBR SailGP team, after the Daily Telegraph story was published.

The second statement issued by Emirates GBR echoed much of the SailGP content, making it clear that Ainslie and Scott will continue as co-helmsmen in the INEOS Britannia America's Cup team.

Currently, Emirates GBR sits in a handy fourth overall in the Season 4 standings in the ten-team event, and Ainslie has performed well in the high-octane SailGP fleet.

But there is work to be done in the America's Cup effort, in which racing starts in just eight months off Barcelona. Just how much leverage the INEOS Britannia can extract from their partnership with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team remains to be seen. Part of the INEOS Britannia design team is based in the F1 team's premises in Brackley, UK.

Like other teams, they can follow the team's testing in real-time from the comfort of their desks or in a meeting room with other designers with overlapping interests in the test session.

Given the unplanned outages in the Brits test program and time lost relative to other teams, the technology available through the tentacles of INEOS Sports group may be enough to perform any heavy lifting design development required. That includes unitising the learning process from the F1 design team as they resolved the ground effect aerodynamic issues manifested in the new race car's porpoising issue in the opening rounds of the 2022 season.

In the first America's Cup Preliminary Event in Villanova, Spain, the Ainslie-helmed British team finished sixth in the six-boat fleet. They improved one place at the second Preliminary Event, which sailed in early December in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Both events were sailed in AC40 One Design foiling monohulls.

"It's a frustrating result, but there is still plenty to take away, lots of learnings and massive improvement from last time out in Villanova," commented skipper and CEO Ben Ainslie in the narrative released by the team following the Red Sea regatta. "That's pleasing, but we certainly wanted to be higher up the leaderboard," the narrative continued.

"We have learned way more than we thought we would from these two AC40 events. Disappointing as the results are in many ways. They have been a massive boost to our campaign. Without these events, undoubtedly, we would not have been as competitive next year in Barcelona."

Looking forward and applying the learnings from a set of less-than-stellar results is a typical PR response to a team that is not performing as they should at this stage of the America's Cup cycle.

The ghost of campaigns past, maybe looming over the British team whose light-weather foiling shortcomings were dreadfully exposed, in the 2020 Xmas Regatta - sailed ahead of the Prada Cup. The INEOS team did emerge as the top team after the Round Robin round and progressed straight to the Challenger Final - where their design frailties were again exposed.

Their radical race boat from the 2021 AC campaign is now a museum piece in Cowes, Isle of Wight - saving storage costs, if nothing else.

Incidents cost test time

The British America's Cup team has lost valuable testing time after several incidents with their custom-designed test boat T6. The first issue arose before the boat's launch in mid-November 2022, when the America's Cup Measurement Committee determined that a towing post, despite being unable to be used for sailing, resembled a Mast Tube and, therefore, would count as their only allowed Mast Tube - unfortunately for the Brits, only one Mast Tube is allowed under the rules governing the 12-metre long test boats known as LEQ12's. The towing post plan was quickly dropped.

After looking to have recovered from the first incident, T6 capsized in early February 2023, and due to a lack of flotation in the mainsail head/spar, the boat inverted. During the tow back to the team base, the batteries caught fire. Several weeks passed while repairs were done, and the test boat was recommissioned.

In early October 2023, during a high-speed tow test, T6's rudder suffered a catastrophic failure, and the foiling monohull spun spectacularly through 180°.

After being repaired, the rudder on T6 failed again on November 13 and has not sailed since. The team is shifting to a two-boat test program following the delivery of their second AC40. That may well have been part of the team's strategy all along.

Passed up AC40 build slot

But curiously, as Challenger of Record and the first challenger team entered, and ahead of the opening of other challenger entries, the INEOS Britannia team had the opportunity to take delivery of their second AC40 as the fourth to come off the McConaghy boats production line. Instead, their just delivered AC40 is #10 off the line.

In the Protocol governing the 37th America's Cup, the Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, is first in line and entitled to build slots 1 & 2; the Challenger of Record, INEOS Britannia, is entitled to build slots 3 & 4.

As a friendly gesture, the Kiwis swapped their second build slot to the Brits, who received the second AC40 and were entitled to a boat from slot #4. By not exercising that right, it would seem that the Brits intended to get more test time out of T6 and have now switched strategy to a twin AC-40 model - the same as run from the outset by Emirates Team NZ, American Magic, and Alinghi Red Bull Racing.

However, those three teams have all retained the use of an AC75 from the 2021 America's Cup, upgrading the boats to Version 2 of the AC75 Class rule, and developing mechatronic systems on a full size test bed.

The Italian Luna Rossa team was the only other team to build a custom design test boat or LEQ12. However, their program has not been beset with the same setbacks as the Brits, with only one serious incident, not four.

It would seem that the INEOS Britannia strategy was to run an AC-40 for participation in the first two Preliminary Events and then hold off getting their second AC40 until late when it was required for their Youth and Womens America's Cup team's training as part of their Project Athena.

An Outlier

The simple point is that by design or default, the Brits follow a strategy different from the five other teams. At this stage, it doesn't appear to be delivering the results, and Ainslie's pullback from sailing in the SailGP program is a response to that situation.

No date has been set for the launch of their AC75 race boat, but it is believed that the Brits - like other challengers who have announced, will launch in May 2024, ahead of the start of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the challenger selection series, in August 2024.

Stepping away from the Emirates GBR program will allow Ainslie - a former America's Cup winner - to focus entirely on the INEOS Britannia America's Cup program. The SailGP series does provide vital racing for the America's Cup skippers/co-helms, Peter Burling (NZL), Tom Slingsby (USA), and Quentin Delapierre (FRA), who are participating in both events. Giles Scott (GBR) will race in both the SailGP and America's Cup circuits.

It is unclear how Ainslie will maintain his race sharpness in open competition without sailing in the one-design SailGP F50s. They are derived from the AC50 wingsailed foiling catamarans used in the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda, in which Ainslie also skippered and managed the British team (BAR Racing).

The likely option is that he will train in-house in the AC40s against the team's second AC40, with the British having several top helmsmen available, including Dylan Fletcher, Tokyo 2020 Gold medalist in the 49er two-man skiff event. However, in-house racing lacks the edge of open racing, unless a form of seat-racing is used, similar to rowing selection, and boat positions are on the line.

The counter-argument may be that Ainslie will get all the open competition he needs from the two-month Louis Vuitton Cup selection series, but so too will many of the other challenger co-helms who are sailing in both the SailGP and America's Cup events.

Ainslie played a leading role in the Oracle Racing win in the 2013 America's Cup when he was engaged as a trial-horse helmsman/skipper on the #2 AC72 wingsailed foiling catamaran. But after Race 5, when the New Zealand Challenger looked to have the measure of the US Defender, Ainslie was swapped into the tactician role, replacing John Kostecki, and combined well with skipper Jimmy Spithill and Olympic Gold medalist Tom Slingsby to turn the tables on the Kiwis in the series which went to a record 19 races.

But in that series, Ainslie brought his considerable sailing skills to focus on just one role - and not the three of helmsman, skipper and CEO, across two separate programs.

Over a decade later, INEOS Britannia hopes that Ainslie's swap-out from sailing responsibilities in the SailGP program will have a similar effect to that in the 2013 Cup - or is more devolvement of duties required of the greatest sailing Olympian?

But with the current direction of travel by the British America's Cup team, something had to give - so Ainslie's shedding of some of his responsibilities come as no surprise. However even so he still has more job titles/functions than any other sailor in the 2024 America's Cup - let alone including those he has retained in the GBR SailGP team.

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