Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR team is pushing for a new two-yearly America’s Cup cycle as well as aiming to ‘bring the Cup home
As Ben Ainslie races in the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series Portsmouth this weekend he embarks on the on the second crucial chapter of his goal to prove Britain can ‘bring the America’s Cup home’. Ainslie wants to illustrate that he can win and that the city of Portsmouth can be a great base for this illustrious event.
But Ainslie’s plans also include a mission to transform the America’s Cup from a four-yearly extravaganza into a tightly organised two-yearly event. A plan being promoted by his Land Rover BAR team would set in place a framework for the next America’s Cup, to be agreed before the Cup racing even begins in Bermuda next summer.
It would lock down the boats to be used and the schedule, with the goal of reducing costs, providing certainties for teams and sponsors and releasing the America’s Cup from its seemingly endless internecine cycles of courtroom battles and laywers’ wrangles.
But first there is a Cup venue to prove.
When the first ever America’s Cup World Series was held in Portsmouth last year it produced a winning result for Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR. But when one of the two days’ racing had be cancelled due to storm force weather it was equally an illustration that the UK weather is liable to derail even the most intricately laid plans.
This weekend, however, conditions seem set fair to repay the efforts that have been made by Land Rover BAR and Team Origin, the company funded by benefactor Sir Keith Mills to put on the America’s Cup World Series Portsmouth. And both arms of the ‘bring the Cup home’ initiative have reason to think that this really could be a dress rehearsal – that Ainslie could indeed win the America’s Cup in Bermuda in June next year.
At a press conference today, Ainslie highlighted the work that has been going on in what is arguably the most ambitious Cup campaign of all time. His £15 million base in Porstmouth, an enormous three-storey high tech building that affords panoramic views of Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent, looks out on what will be the race course this weekend and one day the America’s Cup itself should he capture the trophy.
This is the only team to have a full-time permanent base on this scale. The build stands as evidence that Land Rover BAR is here for the long term. Such efforts are not merely based on the assumption not only that the Cup can be won, but that the impetus can be sustained and the object properly commercialised in the long term.
How long? Hopefully career-long. Indeed, the parallel Land Rover BAR Academy is a sign of Ainslie’s vision that the pathway can go well beyond himself as helmsman and skipper and into the next generation. Land Rover BAR is a replication in some ways, albeit on a much grander scale, of the Olympic training programme that shaped him and most of his sailing team.
“Traditionally, the America’s Cup has really struggled from lack of continuity,” he says. “The way the Cup was won in San Francisco raised global attention and then not a lot happened 18 months after that. Everyone has realised that, but now we have a lot of likeminded teams so we are discussing a framework agreement where whoever wins the Cup plans will be in place.
“It would be a biennial event and, if possible, the same design as [for] the World Series, creating continuity for teams, fan base, partnerships, TV agreements. Then we can tap into the potential.”
A framework agreement has, as Ainslie implies, existed before, but the teams and the rules for the boats were too much in flux for it ever to be signed. This was during a fast and, at times, controversial period of evolution: the race design morphed from the AC72 to a mooted AC62, then settled on 50ft but with the World Series raced in the 45ft foiling cat. These changes brought rifts, most notably the quitting of the Italian Luna Rossa team.
A key player in the plan Ainslie is banking on is Martin Whitmarsh, the new(ish) CEO of Land Rover BAR. Whitmarsh came from the McLaren F1 team. With more of a helicopter view of the America’s Cup competition than most sailors, his mission is to firm the foundations for a long-term stable America’s Cup format on that two-yearly rolling basis.
This would give it a predictable direction, help with managing costs – Land Rover BAR’s budget is said to be a quite staggering £85 million – and by doubling the opportunities to win the Cup increase the chances of it being won by a particular sponsor and be raced out of a team’s home base.
A press conference today showed that, despite broad agreement with the principle, a new framework is still controversial. When the six Cup team skippers were asked by a journalist which of them was in favour of the proposed framework agreement, five put up their hands. Glenn Ashby, skippering Team New Zealand, pointedly did not.
When asked why, his unconvincing answer was: “While I love multihulls we find it very, very hard to walk into something that has been long-standing for a very, very long time.”
Team New Zealand is still awaiting arbitration on the decision to drop Auckland as a host port for the America’s Cup qualifying regatta.
But the plan for a 50ft race boat and a more fast-repeating Cup competition has reportedly gained substantial support. Jimmy Spithill was one of those making positive noises. “The Cup has a great history and with that comes a bit of baggage, but theres a real opportunity to lock this in,”he commented.
“That’s good for us here, but more importantly for the next generation. It used to be lawyers and rules advisers that sat on these panels. Now it’s the sailors.”
As for Ainslie, a new father (his wife, Georgie, gave birth last weekend to a baby girl, named Bellatrix), the next few days is more than just about fighting for points to take into the America’s Cup – it is also about persuading other teams and their backers towards a similar vision for a long-term sustainable sporting business.
“We’ve had many British challenges over the years, but never quite got there,” he says. “This time we are trying to approach it differently and we have got a fantastic group of backers and commercial partners. We are working incredibly hard. I can’t guarantee we are going to be successful, but if we are not we are going to keep going.”