The Prada Cup is going to be close, says Sir Ben Ainslie ahead of the Final, but he’s confident the British team can match Luna Rossa in boat handling as racing for a place in the America's Cup resumes this weekend

“I think it will be a very, very closely fought final, that’s my expectation,” Ben Ainslie said speaking to Yachting World just days before Prada Cup Final between his British America’s Cup team INEOS Team UK and the Italian Challenger Luna Rossa.

Opposing Prada Cup finalists Luna Rossa do not, Ainslie observed in a team update, seem to have any obvious weak areas. But in the white-hot competition of AC75 racing, you do not need your opponent to be weak, only for your team to be slightly stronger. Where does he think INEOS Team UK has an advantage?

Ainslie ready for Prada Cup Final

Team principal and skipper Sir Ben Ainslie. Photo: Team INEOS UK /Lloyd Images

“I think just in race craft, really,” Ainslie told Yachting World. “I think in throwing the boat around in tight situations, our sailors have done a brilliant job. So far – we’ve still got to keep improving. But I’ve got a lot of confidence in our sailing team to be able to at least match the Italians in these close boat-on-boat situations, which you may well see quite a few of.

“And it’ll be interesting to see the heavy air performance. We haven’t really had much of a real [test against] them in say over 14, 15 knots of wind speed against the Italians. And it’ll be interesting to see if one of us has a jump in those conditions.”

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Given that the British America’s Cup Challengers are expected to be faster in stronger conditions, it would be understandable if Ainslie and team were disappointed with the recent decision to keep the upper wind limit for racing at 21 knots, instead of extending it as planned to 23 knots.

“We were asked our opinion,” Ainslie said diplomatically, “Bear in mind it’s not our decision. That’s a decision for the Defender and Challenger of Record.

“Our opinion was that we didn’t think we should be changing the wind limits at such a late stage. But if the other two teams genuinely felt that there was a safety element to this, then we weren’t going to stand in anyone’s way. And importantly, we weren’t going to moan about it, it’s their decision. We wouldn’t have changed it, but it’s their decision. And we’ll roll with it.”

Ainslie’s Prada Cup Final pre-race advantage?

Having gone straight through to the Prada Cup finals, while Luna Rossa had to sail off against American Magic, INEOS Team UK have gained a valuable week to make additional modifications. Ainslie was understandably reluctant to share much detail, but the team are clearly working to build on many of the improvements they had made over Christmas.

“We clearly had to use that time and, we all know it’s obvious to everyone that the lighter airs is our potential area of weakness. So that’s been our primary focus. And we have made changes across the board to the boat, not just under the water, but above the water as well.

Photo: Borlenghi Studios / COR

“We don’t know ultimately how much that’s closed the gap versus the Italians in the lighter airs. We certainly hope and expect that it has. So we’ve got to, quite quickly as we start this series, try and get that balance of understanding what our performance is and then adapt to that as we go through the races. That’s part of the trick.”

By contrast, Lunna Rossa helmsman Jimmy Spithill has spoken about why he thinks continuing to race in the semi-finals will have given his team a competitive advantage. “Given how little racing everyone has had, I’m glad we went through the semi finals – this has pushed our development and learning at the same time,” he commented afterwards.

“It’s interesting,” countered Ainslie, “We were asked before, what do you want to do? I said, yeah, we want to get straight there for Prada Cup Final. We won the race, went though to the final and bought ourselves the time. I think it perhaps would have been interesting [to have] asked Jimmy before the race, what would you rather have done?”

“But, it doesn’t really matter you know, we can’t we can’t control what Luna Rossa do. We respect them massively. We know it’s going to be a tough race. All we can do is use the time that we had to get ourselves in the best possible position.”

AC75 closing speeds

If expectations are correct, and the two boats are evenly matched, we could be set to see some extremely close match racing at incredible closing speeds. During the last race between INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa there were no fewer than nine lead changes, including one famously fast port-starboard cross. Collision avoidance has taken on greater importance than ever.

INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli in the Prada Cup Round Robin

Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

“I think that’s first and foremost in our minds of all of us who are racing these boats. I’m pretty sure it’s the same for all the helmsman,” said Ainslie. “You don’t want these boats coming together, particularly at the higher speeds, that could be catastrophic.

“So you’re reliant on the other sailors, the other helmsman, and we’re all going to push hard. But we all know just how serious it would be if the boats came together.”

Ainslie explained that, although the sailors are handling vast quantities of data on the AC75s, they do not have a computer-assisted view of the virtual ‘safety diamond’ which extends around each boat to help prevent collisions – that is only visible to umpires and online viewers. “We just have to judge that. There’s no indication for us on the yacht in terms of where we are in terms of the diamond, we just have to judge that, it’s quite tricky.”

The same applies in a crossing situation. “We don’t we don’t have any numbers at that point,” Ainslie said. “It’s just done off of your eyeball and your sort of gut instinct really – at, like, 90 kilometres an hour closing speeds. It’s a bit like dodging the traffic on the M25.”

If the breeze fills in, the Prada Cup final could be spectacular. Watch all the action live online via the America’s Cup YouTube or Facebook channels. British fans can also watch live the Prada Cup finals live on BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button and BBC Sport website.

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