Race results went one-to-one today after a very much faster Oracle Team USA returned to the America's Cup match following five days of re-tuning. But the results actually came down to mistakes made by both teams
Jimmy Spithill and Oracle Team USA punched out their first win in the America’s Cup today, seeding hopes of a comeback against Emirates Team New Zealand.
They lost the first race of the day to go 4-0 down in the first-to-seven series, but won the second race. Something had clearly changed. Oracle Team USA was a noticeably quicker boat than the one that went back into the shed for an urgent re-think last weekend.
Today’s one-for-one races were far closer, yet tactical errors and handling mistakes were the deciding factors in both races.
Listen to ETNZ’s Peter Burling talk to us about it in this video:
Today was also a personal milestone for Jimmy Spithill: he notched up the 14th America’s Cup victory of his career, matching the record held by Russell Coutts for the greatest number of wins.
Afterwards, he seemed a new man, and was in battling mood.
“It was important to get that win today, but I believe there’s more speed in the tank… We’ve worked pretty hard this week. We saw these guys take days off during the week and we made the commitment inside the team that we’d use every single one of them,” he said.
“We all saw today the boat’s a lot faster. Obviously, we’re not sailing as well as we should be. But the important point is, the boat’s faster….It’s working; the boat’s getting quicker.”
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Spithill declined to elucidate the changes, saying they were too numerous to go through but that the shore crew had been working every day on 24-hour shifts.
The most obvious change was that the pedal grinder on the back for tactician Tom Slingsby was gone, part of a ruthless strip-out programme designed to save weight.
Their medium foils looked different, too, maybe the tips were longer, and there was talk by Spithill of changes to the rudder. This changed configuration may have been the reason Oracle Team USA did some slow gybes on the first race; they sometimes looked less stable.
When we asked him about this he said: “Sure. On these boats, it’s always a compromise. Typically, what’s fast is very challenging to sail and usually unstable. So it goes both ways. But we know we can do a better job and that’s pretty exciting for the guys to know there’s quite a bit left on the table.”
Oracle Team USA sieze their chances
Emirates Team New Zealand won the first race handsomely thanks mainly to a series of mistakes made by Oracle, including a fractionally premature start by Spithill.
These mistakes, including overstanding the layline to a downwind gate, allowed Emirates Team New Zealand to streak away and finish over two minutes ahead, one of the largest winning margins in the Cup series so far.
But on the second race the tables were turned and it was Burling who made the errors, letting Oracle by on two occasions.
A much tighter race with some 50-knot closing speed dips, protests and lead changes, this was much more the kind of heart-in-mouth contest we saw during the qualifiers and play-offs.
Burling drew out a small lead but spurned the opportunity to cover Oracle and sailed out to the opposite boundary. That gave Spithill the gauge he needed to find stronger wind on the other side of the course.
On the upwind leg, the starboard tack Emirates Team New Zealand made an aggressive dial down, which Spithill protested. No penalty was given, and later Spithill complained: “We feel like these guys have been given a few soft penalties.”
But Emirates Team New Zealand’s fate was sealed on the next cross, when they were coming into the windward gate on port and were forced to dip so low they shrugged to make the mark rounding. A very slow turn allowed Oracle to get well ahead and end the passing opportunities.
Burling admits that they made too many mistakes today. “They [Oracle] sailed their boat better today and we weren’t that happy with how we sailed. It felt like we handed them that last race on the last beat but at the same time we’ve got plenty to work on later today.”
Emirates Team New Zealand still have the faster VMG boat, higher and quicker upwind and lower and faster downwind. But the gap has narrowed, so minor mistakes they may have got away with beforehand cost dearly now. Their tactics are sure to get a close look at tonight.
At a press conference afterwards, the two skippers indulged in trading a few light punches (to the delight of assembled media, of course), with the cool-headed Burling trying to land the biggest. “It’s great to see those boys actually sail a bit better,” he deadpanned.
Spithill didn’t rise to the bait. He’s an old hand at this game.
So the score now sits at 4-1 to New Zealand, but even if tomorrow and Monday’s racing keeps going one-for-one, as some pundits are predicting, that wouldn’t be enough for Oracle – they need it all to go their way tomorrow. Only then could we start to call it a comeback.