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La Grande Motte International Regatta: Could the young Italians steal Olympic thunder this week?

by Andy Rice 6 May 18:02 BST 7-12 May 2024
La Grande Motte International Regatta 2024 © YCGM / Didier Hillaire Photography

The Nacra 17 World Championship along with the 49er and 49erFX European Championships is about to start in La Grande Motte in the South of France, with sailors looking to make the most of the final major test before this summer's Olympic Games.

The World Championship has attracted all but one of the teams who will be contesting the mixed multihull event at the Olympic Regatta in Marseille this summer. After a horribly damp and drizzly day on the Mediterranean, the teams are looking forward to a week of warmer and sunnier conditions for the six days of competition scheduled from 7 to 12 May.

It's one of the cruel aspects of Olympic sailing that only one team gets to go for each nation. This means that some of the world's fastest sailors are left behind. Italy's Gianluigi Ugolini and Maria Giubilei are a case in point. The young Italians put down a strong marker last summer when they won the gold medal at the Olympic Test Event in Marseille. But they won't be on the start line for this summer's Olympic Regatta.

After seeing their teammates and selection rivals win that Marseille medal, reigning Olympic Champions from Italy, Ruggero Tita and Caterina Banti, were under some pressure to deliver a good result at the 2023 Worlds in The Netherlands last August. Tita and Banti duly stepped up and won the title for the second year running. Can they now make it a third win in a row in La Grande Motte this week? Certainly they'll be doing their best to cement their reputation as the team to beat in Marseille this summer. But Banti's taking nothing for granted and acknowledges that their Italian training partners are among a number who could yet take the world title in the coming week.

"It's going to be a big week of racing, and it will be the best team who will win the regatta six days from now," said Banti diplomatically. "There are a lot of young teams who could go well. They [Ugolini and Giubilei from Italy] might win because they are a really strong team. We have been training together for years, we are good friends, and there is a really good feeling in the fleet, both in the boat park and on the water."

Ugolini joked that he has to deliver this week as he has bought the mainsail that Tita and Banti used to win the 2022 Worlds in Canada. "The sail is a bit yellow now, but this week we have to prove it is still fast," he laughed.

Great Britain's John Gimson and Anna Burnet are among the teams expected to pose the greatest threat to Italian dominance but there are so many others to consider as serious contenders for the Nacra 17 podium. Last summer was a breakthrough season for the Dutch crew of Laila van der Meer and Bjarne Bouwer who were fourth at the Worlds in The Hague. However, keeping on top of developments and maintaining good form in such a technical class as the foiling catamaran is difficult. The Dutch have struggled in recent times, van der Meer and Bouwer only managing 17th at the Princess Sofia Trophy in Palma a month ago. This week offers an opportunity for the young Dutch to regain some confidence before the Olympics, says Bouwer.

"It's the last big event before the Games, so this is a good week to see where we are in the fleet, and to work out what we need to improve in the last few months [before the Olympics]. Palma, the Princess Sofia Trophy, was a hard regatta for us, so it's important for us to get back in the rhythm this week, get some good scores in, and find the pace again. I think that's the most important thing for us. During the week we'll see how the points are, and hopefully we get better and better. We're going to push hard, that's for sure."

With a number of the top 49erFX crews taking time out for some rest and recuperation, the 49erFX European Championships offers some teams a chance to compete for the title. Anouk Geurts is going to be representing Belgium alongside her helm Isaura Maenhaut at Paris 2024 and looks forward to the opportunity for some tight racing on a hectic race course this week. "We've been training here already for around 10 days with the Canadians and it's been quite productive," said the Belgian crew. "I think we just try to focus on a few points that we have for ourselves before the summer. This week we take the regatta day by day, but the wind conditions are going to be quite variable, so it's going to be nice racing. The aim is to do as well as possible but everything we're doing is with the big goal this summer in our minds."

Last November at the 2023 49er Europeans in Portugal, Lucas Rual and Emile Amoros must surely have thought that their victory would place them as the most obvious pick for Olympic selection from a strong French squad. However, no one could have predicted the phenomenal victory at this year's World Championship in Lanzarote by another French team, Erwan Fischer and Clément Pequin. Struggling with injury last season, Fischer and Pequin were not even racing at last year's Europeans but now, having been selected for the Games, the 2024 title would be a great way for the French to set themselves up for the Olympics on home waters.

Pequin admits their build-up to the event has been less than ideal. "We have had a lot going on this year and it's been so busy for the past six months, so it's important to take a little time off when you get the opportunity," he said. With barely a week between the end of the last regatta in Hyères further along the French coast, Pequin has enjoyed a few vital days off back home in La Rochelle.

"We got here to La Grande Motte quite late because we were taking some time off, a few days at home, after competing at Semaine Olympique Francaise a week ago in Hyères. Of course the big objective is to prepare for the Olympic Games this summer. So we have a few key areas we want to work on this week. We have a new boat with a few adjustments to make, and then work on specific aspects of the racing, and in particular the starts."

Racing begins on Tuesday morning with the start of the qualification series for the three events.

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