Emirates Team New Zealand eclipse the deficit going into the finals and now lead Oracle Team USA after the first two races of the 35th America's Cup finals.
It’s 1-0 to NZ in the first to seven of what is set to be be a gripping, high-octane series.
An emphatic first two victories for Emirates Team New Zealand – plus claims they have plenty more in the tank – will give defenders Oracle Team USA plenty to think about after the opening matches of the America’s Cup finals.
The build-up has been immense. Four years since the last (34th) America’s Cup finals in San Francisco and we have a re-match – a proper grudge match – between the defenders Team Oracle USA and their Australian skipper and the challengers Emirates Team New Zealand.
The exotic setting of Bermuda and a buzzing America’s Cup village with high speed racing finishing metres away set a vibrant stage. To top off the build-up there was an exhibition race of the largest collection of J Class ever seen, just two hours before the start of the first race.
If Emirates Team New Zealand had any pre-match nerves it certainly didn’t show on the face of the seemingly unflappable 26 year-old skipper Peter Burling, who, together with his young but Olympic medal winning crew showed a steely determination to wrestle the America’s Cup back from the clutches of Oracle Team USA today.
There are two different ways to look at why the results went the way they did. Emirates Team New Zealand showed some electric pace both upwind and downwind, admitting they still made mistakes and still have more in the tank. But Oracle made two pivotal mistakes. Both skippers spoke to Toby post race.
The pre-match banter here in Bermuda focused on the two minute pre-start wrestling match and whether Oracle’s Team USA’s aggressive helmsman Jimmy Spithill would expose the one area of weakness Peter Burling showed in the challenger series. The AC commentary team described the sparring helmsmen as ‘the sheriff against the young gun-slinger’.
Spithill had laid the gauntlet down in the pre-match press conference. “We have an advantage because we’re the adopted home team. It’s pretty obvious who Bermuda wants to win – and a home field advantage can really play a part.”
In the event Oracle Team USA got the first start badly wrong. The light 7–8 knot easterly breeze at the start proved a puffy, shifty wind that could have played a bigger part in the match had Oracle Team USA not made such a poor start.
Was Jimmy Spithill a bit rusty after a two-week break since their last challenger series match?
Spithill admitted they got their timings wrong. Turning to go to the start line too early Oracle Team USA allowed Team New Zealand to become the aggressors, got their time and distance to the line wrong and were penalised for being early. “We gifted them the race,” said a typically bullish Spithill afterwards.
There was no hunting the kiwi boat down however, Emirates Team New Zealand simply extended their lead with each leg. Both boats were equipped with their light airs foils today. The fickle breeze dropped right down on the final leg, leaving Oracle struggling to foil and rounding gate five nearly two minutes behind.
But drama was reserved until the very last gate rounding when Emirates Team New Zealand made a rare error with their last gybe, dropped off their foils and stopped dead in the water. It was a heart stopping moment for the huge collection of kiwi fans in the grandstands, in a near déjà vu of an earlier Artemis match.
The challengers got back to speed in time to finish off a comfortable victory. They had undone the point Oracle Team USA gained for winning the Round Robin series – and honours were even.
“It was pretty pleasing to win by that much with so many errors around the race track,” said Peter Burling, post race.
0-0 scoreline going into second race
The breeze was up a little for the second race, over 10 knots at the start. It was clear Jimmy Spithill wanted to be aggressive but he couldn’t quite get that all important ‘hook’ that would allow them to control the New Zealand boat to windward.
Burling got the favoured higher end, creating a slightly better angle to the first mark and enough speed to edge ahead of the American boat and give them disturbed air.
On the first downwind leg Emirates Team New Zealand had up to five knots more pace than Oracle Team USA at times – although Jimmy Spithill later said the conditions were too puffy to read into any real boat speed differences today.
“We all thought in lighter airs they’d be good, but not this good,” said commentator Ken Read when the New Zealand boat then starting showing more speed and better VMG upwind too. “Kiwi fans around the world will be kinda licking their chops.”
Once again however, there was a surprise in store, with the Americans a seemingly unassailable 1 minute 35 seconds behind at the fourth gate. Burling had, until that final upwind leg, covered Oracle Team USA – and admitted afterwards he probably should have continued to do so.
Spithill and tactician Tom Slingsby picked an incredible shift on a starboard beat, which saw them reduce the deficit to mere metres at the final top gate rounding.
It looked for a moment like the defenders could go from zero to hero in one leg. But then followed Oracle’s second pivotal mistake of the day, a cruel gybe, where they dropped off the foils and parked, losing 300m on the kiwis instantly.
Did they lose hydraulic oil pressure? “I think we stalled the rudder going into the gybe,” Jimmy Spithill told us – “we’ll have to go back and look at the footage.”
Oracle Team USA had gone from a miraculous comeback to a large, 1 minute 30s loss, in what was a chastening afternoon for the defenders.
“This wind direction is notorious for being shifty,” said Spithill, “there were some big lumps out there.” Emirates Team New Zealand’s skipper Glenn Ashby agreed, saying he never stopped trimming the wing.
So was it Emirates Team New Zealand’s pace or the combination of mistakes and shifty conditions?
The one thing we can be sure of is that Jimmy Spithill and Oracle will be back out with more determination than ever for the double match tomorrow. “We were far from our best today and will come out swinging tomorrow,” said Spithill.