The first day of America's Cup qualifier racing was full of surprises. Land Rover BAR has found true speed, but Ben Ainslie was involved in a dangerous crash
The fastest America’s Cup in history got off to a storming start today in Bermuda, with top teams racing at more than 40 knots in just 10-12 knots of true wind. In the biggest surprise of the day Land Rover BAR came out fast to win their first race, then was in a major pre-start collision with SoftBank Team Japan, causing serious damage to the British boat.
After only two races, the British team’s fortunes on subsequent races illustrates the likely twists and turns to come. Aside from Ainslie’s miscalculation on race two, Land Rover BAR’s newfound turn of speed suggests no one now should write off his chances of ‘bringing the Cup home’.
The British team finished the day in joint 1st position with Oracle Team USA with 3 points – they started two points up as winners of the World Series.
High speed smash
Land Rover BAR’s collision with SoftBank Team Japan happened as Dean Barker came in fast during pre-start manoeuvres and Ainslie failed to get out of the way when luffed. This series is going to be aggressive and brutal. It is Ainslie’s second big collision – he hit the back of Emirates Team New Zealand during practice racing last week.
But this smash was much more dangerous.
It was serious enough to prompt the chief umpire to take a deep breath and mutter “Jesus Christ!”. You could see the vulnerable grinders of Land Rover BAR and SoftBank team jumping out of the way of the impact inches away from the where the two hulls crashed together.
Afterwards a large, fraying crack was visible in the skin of Land Rover BAR under the port hull. Damage was not obvious on SoftBank Team Japan, but boatbuilders on both teams will certainly have to work through the night to get both boats ready for racing tomorrow.
But returning to Land Rover BAR’s first race against pre-race race favourites Artemis Racing, Ainslie’s crew dominated. The team that many said had not mastered stable foiling flight upwind demonstrated the strides they have made. They soared through almost every tack without touching down.
However, the two boatlengths Land Rover BAR were penalised for their mistake in the race against SoftBank Team Japan was something from which they never recovered and during the final legs the boat looked distinctly off the pace. Commenting from on the water, Joey Newton of Oracle Team USA suggested that Land Rover BAR’s port hull may have been holed and was perhaps slowly taking in water and therefore heavier.
No doubt about it: that collision cost them the race, and Ainslie’s reputation as being ever-so-slightly psycho on the race course just got burnished.
Or was there something more to it? Could be, as some observers immediately noted, and Land Rover BAR’s Martin Whitmarsh later confirmed.
In the first race, the British team was slightly faster than Artemis Racing from the start and built an impressive lead over Artemis Racing. The two teams split on the upwind leg and Land Rover BAR were able to extended their lead throughout the race before spending some of that lead on defensive tactics to finish 11 seconds ahead.
What has Land Rover BAR done to get that improvement – foils, controls, software for the controls…? That was one of the big questions of the day, and other teams will be poring over the footage in their post-race briefings as they recalibrate the odds.
The most eagerly awaited race of the day was between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand. This was something of a rehearsal perhaps between the two teams many believe will go through the match for the America’s Cup.
Both were accomplished, fast and impressive, and the lead between them changed several times. But it was always close. Some aggressive luffing by Oracle Team USA put them in the lead on the final upwind mark rounding, giving them the win.
This was a very exciting, high adrenaline 20-minute needlematch, ending with a high-speed reach and a separation of just six seconds. In fact, it had it all: protest flags, lead changes, tactical manoeuvres: everything you could wish for from these flying machines.
A similar story of close racing, twists and turns was played out between Artemis Racing and SoftBank Team Japan. The lead Dean Barker had carved out was lost in an upwind leg in which the two matched each other tack for tack. A few errors by SoftBank Team Japan lost them the lead and Barker was forced to tack off, giving the race win to Artemis.
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A worry for the French
The team that really needs to worry is Groupama Team France, which seemed to struggle for control in the shifty land breeze. The French boat looked less stable than Oracle Team USA or Artemis Racing, sometimes riding high on foils, but at other times crashing down during gybes and tacks.
Some of the differences in speed seen today may relate to the choice of light wind or heavier wind foils. Each team has four sets of foils to choose from, two of these identical replacements. They span the wind range, and some teams had fitted a light wind, low drag type; some bigger, more powerful foils.
Teams must make their choice on each race day several hours beforehand, and cannot change during the day. Today the wind speed was right on the crossover. So this is one of many variables that we could see affecting the outcome, and puts a huge onus on forecasters getting it right before the start of the racing even begins.
A couple of things of note today: Emirates Team New Zealand looked so polished. Their bike grinder configuration looked strange but surprisingly natural, and there was no sign of the crew being in any way disadvantaged during manoeuvres.
Team Oracle USA are hedging their bets on this powertrain option: during the race, tactician Tom Slingsby moved to a bike grinder behind helmsman Jimmy Spithill on downwind legs, shifting his weight aft and putting him at the shoulder of the skipper.
What else did we learn today? According to North Sails president, former AC sailor and commentator Ken Read: “That no lead is safe. And that you can come back from quite a distance.”