Three years of hard work could all be over today for Land Rover BAR or Artemis Racing in the Challenger playoffs. It's time for Ainslie to get angry, says Andy Rice.
Ben Ainslie is not averse to controversy. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest he thrives on it. Where most sailors perform less well when they lose their rag, it seems that it’s only when you’ve shown a red rag to Sir Ben that he really starts to charge.
Five years ago at a windy Olympic regatta in Weymouth Bay, Ainslie was struggling to get on terms with the Danish Finn sailor Jonas Høgh-Christensen. However, the Dane committed the fatal error of ganging up with Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma on Ainslie, forcing the Briton to take a 720° penalty turn.
Ainslie was fuming as he came ashore that afternoon five years ago. “They’ve made a big mistake,” he said. “They’ve made me angry and you don’t want to make me angry.”
Back then, not only did Ben sound like the Incredible Hulk, his beefed up 93kg frame was superhero-sized too. These days the Land Rover BAR skipper is closer to 80kg, as every kilo he can lose is another kilo that his powerhouse crew of four grinders can add to their sculpted physiques.
Although it seems an age ago now, a pre-start collision with Emirates Team New Zealand during the final phase of America’s Cup practice racing in Bermuda suggests that while Ainslie has shed a few kilos, he’s lost none of his competitive fire. Kiwi skipper Peter Burling had secured the favoured leeward end of the start line but Ainslie tried to steer his AC50 between his rival and the mark into a gap that was not wide enough.
“Ben was quite late and just ran straight into the back of us,” said Burling. “Just unnecessary a week out from the Cup. We are all here to learn and it’s a shame we have a pretty big metre dent now in the back of our nice boat.”
Emirates Team New Zealand CEO Grant Dalton added: “We know Ben well, he is a good guy but frustration is obviously getting to him and the red mist came down. It’s a lot of damage at a time we can’t afford it.”
To add insult to injury – at least, some were insulted whether Ainslie intended it or not – the Land Rover BAR skipper apologised with a tweet saying: “Bit of a love tap racing hard with @EmiratesTeamNZ sorry guys and hope you’re back on the water soon”.
The ‘love tap’ comment didn’t play at all well on social media, although one wonders if this is all part of Ainslie winding up the psychological pressure on his rivals. By his own admission Ainslie has always been a Jekyll and Hyde character, a gentleman on shore who morphs into a monster on the water.
Perhaps this is another example of Ainslie doing what he needs to kick himself into top gear.
Judging by the results of the practice race sessions, round robins and playoffs, Land Rover BAR surely needs to find another gear if it’s going to progress to the challenger finals.
Artemis Racing was the team to beat in practice (although there is some interesting speculation as to why that might have been), with Emirates Team New Zealand and SoftBank Team Japan looking pretty competitive too. The British boat handling has been good, but not perfect, and the boat has not been foiling with the same level of stability and consistency as its faster rivals.
Top-end speed has been lacking and Ainslie has been unable to close out matches even when he’s taken an early lead. There was even a moment when the Brits looked incapable of dispatching Groupama Team France – the first to exit the competition. Now with their last chance to get into the challenger finals, they look to really have a fight on their hands.
Three years of hard work could all boil down to today for Land Rover BAR and Artemis Racing, and we wait to see who emerges as the contender to go up against Oracle Team USA for the America’s Cup Match which begins on 17 June.
The Americans had a few dodgy moments in practice racing with three capsizes but won the round robin series and take a point into the final. Also, while Oracle initially dismissed the cycle-grinding of the Kiwis, it’s been interesting to see the appearance of a single cycling position appear on the back of the boat, with tactician Tom Slingsby putting in a solo effort behind his skipper Jimmy Spithill.
The American team, consisting mostly of Australian sailors, performed well in the round robin stages, but no one knows better than Spithill that as far as the America’s Cup is concerned, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.