America’s Cup 36: Fast Wins

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Now that the talking—and hoping for a longer series—is done, the reality of this all-too-brief regatta is that yet again the faster boat and the better sailing team triumphed in sailing’s ultimate test of technology, speed and smarts. One-hundred-and-fifty plus years of Cup history simply repeating itself.

The final score will be recorded as 7 wins for the Kiwis and 3 for Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, the Italian Challenger of Record. The results, however, do little justice to reflect the physical, mental and financial investments of these two dynastic sailing teams over four long years. Only those deep inside the Luna Rossa camp will ever truly know the struggle to beat a superior opponent at their own game and on their own turf.

Yes, Luna Rossa battled its way through the Prada Cup and were race hardened when the Kiwis came knocking, but the Italians knew well what they were lining up against when they entered the starting box on March 6. The spies have eyes. Everyone accepted as fact the New Zealanders had a fast boat, but what they would do with it was the big unknown. For the men in black and grey, this final sprint for up the learning curve was real and live before our eyes.

Both teams improved day by day and night by night as they explored their and their opponent’s abilities, but in the end, Team New Zealanders had the better tool for the job, and that much was on full display in Auckland when they delivered the final and fatal blow to the Italians in Race 10.

Following a winning pattern, they nailed the start, got to the first shift as they discussed before the start and controlled the race all the way into the finish. Spithill and Co., gave it their all and challenged the New Zealanders around the racecourse as best they could despite their only costly errors, but as Spithill confessed to America’s Cup TV’s Shirley Robertson after racing, the outcome was inevitable. The series was short and bittersweet, and more racing would have only made the defender stronger.

“They definitely had some speed to burn,” Spithill said. “For us to win races, we almost had to be perfect.”

Absolute perfection eluded Spithill and his teammates throughout the series. When mistakes happened onboard the curvy black AC75 of Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, Team New Zealand’s sailors were ready to capitalize. “When we won races, it was a close margin, and when they won races, there were bigger margins,” Spithill says. “When we were in the lead it felt like they were breathing down our necks, and as soon as they were either able to pass or get ahead, they were pretty quickly out of reach.”

But New Zealand was far from perfect, hinted Luna Rossa’s skipper and team director Max Sirena, visibly stinging from his team’s defeat during the final press conference.

“We hoped to pull out a win today,” he told Robertson afterward. “It didn’t happen. The sailors on the boat sailed extremely well, but unfortunately, we probably made one mistake in each race while the other guy probably made 10 mistakes on each race, but when the boat is faster you can make as many mistakes as you want and still finish ahead. This is part of the America’s Cup. It’s not just a sailing team game; it’s a design contest and a big puzzle and you need to put the pieces together well.”

Luna Rossa, and Sirena especially, worked closely with the Defender to develop the AC75 class rule, so they too had an advance on the design of Luna Rossa. Theirs was a fast boat in the lighter winds that prevailed in the Cup match races. It was maneuverable and able to be sailed at considerably higher angles that benefited them several times in the Prada Cup races, and in the Match itself. Still, Team New Zealand had a weapon that never got to show its full potential.

“We felt we were competitive across the range,” said TNZ head designer Dan Bernasconi, “but it is hard to know until you get out on the racetrack. Luna Rossa had a very good high mode in that boat and were able to get to very narrow angles. We enjoyed sailing fast.”

Luna Rossa’s port-side helmsman, Francesco Bruni, acknowledged the New Zealanders were improving every day, and by Race 10, their advances in speed and maneuverability were remarkable.

Spithill’s frank assessment was that, as good as his boat was, he felt he was wielding a knife at the ol’ Kiwi gunfight.

“They sailed well and we did not expect anything else,” Spithill said. “For sure we left some race wins on the table. I felt we had a shot to have a few more on the score line and apply pressure at times, but that’s sport.”

While both sailing teams benefited from deep pools of talent in their engineering and design departments, Emirates Team New Zealand arguably has the best helmsman of the modern America’s Cup era. Burling is a fearless and unflinching hand on the helm who chuckles under immense pressure. He’s also a critical input to the design team, as is his Olympic 49er sidekick flight controller, Blair Tuke. They’re linked with the wisdom and talents of their extraordinary mainsail trimmer Glen Ashby, and the smarts of teammates Josh Junior and Andy Maloney. The whole foiling package and its brain trust was delivered around the racecourses by powerhouse grinders Carlo Huisman, Guy Endean, Simon Van Velthooven, Joe Sullivan, Louis Sinclair, Marius Van Der Pol, Marcus Hansen, Finn Henry, Mike Lee, and Steven Ferguson—the unsung workhorses of this Kiwi Cup victory. The brutal and physical demand put on these individuals to induce takeoff speeds and provide the power to control a boat the likes that only Peter Burling can steer cannot be overstated. Without them, the boat is powerless.

Ray Davies, the team’s coach and a veteran leader in the New Zealand camp acknowledged the difficulty of entering the Cup races with limited races under their belt. They’d been watching the Challenger series with a critical eye, but what they see and what they get when they finally line up, were two different things. “The more racing you do the better you get and the more we did the better we got,” Davies said. “Today [we have] an incredible team. The guys on the boat were embracing not just the match racing, but understanding the boat every day.”

There were variables to the racing they didn’t fully comprehend early on, the effect of wing-wash, for example, says Davies. They could never get that kind of knowledge from sparing with their chase boat or modeling it in the simulator. Once they got bit hard by sailing through Luna Rossa’s dirty air, they never let it happen again, and it made the reevaluate their pre-start playbook.

Ashby praised his rivals in the post-race press conference, congratulating them for having “sailed the wheels off the boat,” adding, “we had a rocket ship of a boat and it took us a while to work out our modes—it was hard to get past them [when they got ahead].

The Cup’s highlight reels will point to a series of race-changing mistakes by the Italians—some unforced, others dealt by bad luck and the unpredictability of the winds and shifts of the inshore racecourses. Not to mention a confined course that offered limited and rare passing opportunities.

“I do have regrets,” Spithill told Robertson, seemingly shouldering the weight of the loss on his shoulders—even though he shared the helm with Bruni, an arrangement that worked well at times, but revealed disadvantages when the action was fast-paced. “I felt like I left some wins on the table. I thought we had an opportunity to level the score or at least get ahead, but sport and pressure do funny things.”

Sirena, too, was obviously disappointed with the outcome, but says he regrets nothing. The team faced their own considerable challenges in the design and build of its first AC75, the foil arms and the complex and buggy foil-cant system provided to all the teams. They suffered through the chaos of the early COVID outbreak in Italy, a gutting loss in the Prada Cup semis, and an ugly publicity battle when they demanded the Prada Cup racing continue under Auckland’s mid-regatta COVID lockdown.

“We had a shot and thought we could beat them,” Sirena said, “but I acknowledge they have a fast boat and a fast boat in a long series will always come out on top.”

While the Team New Zealand juggernaut continues to reap the benefits of its institutional knowledge and culture, established more than 25 years ago, Sirena said the Luna Rossa team that came to win in Auckland essentially started from scratch in 2015. “To put together this team was not easy,” Sirena said, noting a fair number of young team members had experienced their first Cup. “It’s a different team than the past, and hopefully, there will be another Cup here in New Zealand, and they will come back stronger than today.”

Sirena stated several times that Luna Rossa Prada boss, Patrizio Bertelli, is keen to have another go. He’s been trying to nearly 30 years, so why not?

“Luna Rossa will keep going for sure,” Sirena says. “That is what Patrizio has told me. I am pleased he will continue.”

Speculation around the Auckland waterfront suggests INEOS Team UK’s Jim Ratcliffe intends to continue where the British team left off after being drubbed by Luna Rossa in the Prada Cup semifinals. As for American Magic, many of the principles stuck around to see the Cup play out. They’re sitting on a priceless trove of AC75 equipment and intellectual property. The New York YC has some seriously unfinished business, and they’re invested. American Magic skipper and CEO, Terry Hutchinson, expressed his personal desire to finish the job, contingent upon the outcome. He, and everyone else across all the teams, are now praising the AC75 as a class worthy of another round. Race 8 of the 36th America’s Cup—the most captivating of all the racing in Auckland—was proof that two closely matched 75-foot foilers could deliver a compelling match race worthy of the sailing world’s attention.

The sailors of challengers and defender alike agree on one thing: the show ended when it was getting good. We never did get to see what the two best AC75s and their crews were capable of at the top of the wind range. I suspect we will see a return of a new and improved version for the 37th America’s Cup, and this next time for sure will be a true test of Team New Zealand’s grip on the big silver ewer. They’re unbeaten for now, but as the sailors of Luna Rossa will attest, they can be beaten.

By Dave Reed

Source: sailing world

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