Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli edge one step closer to Prada Cup Final victory, now leading INEOS Team UK by 5 races to 1

INEOS Team UK started the third day of Prada Cup Final racing trailing Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli by four wins as both teams fight for the right to be the official challenger for the America’s Cup. They go to bed tonight still trailing the Italian outfit by four wins. 

Once again today we saw a relatively consistent wind of around 10 knots offering few passing opportunities and both races were won by the boat that won the start. 

Sir Ben Ainslie, at the helm of INEOS Team UK had not managed to get the upper hand in the pre-start in any of the opening four races of the series and the opening race today, race six of the Prada Cup Final, saw his team behind immediately. 

The co-helmed Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli led back to the startline and possibly looked a touch early, allowing the Brits to push them back towards the start. However, Jimmy Spithill, who steers the Italian AC75 on starboard, impressively sailed high and slow back to the startline managing to find the delicate balance between closing in on the Brits to windward and staying on their foils as the boat slowed. “Obviously there is a fine line between staying high and slow and being too high and slow and falling off the foils. [Jimmy Spithill] did a really good job,” said Francesco Bruni of the situation and his co-helmsman at the end of the race.

INEOS concede a penalty in Race 5 of the Prada Cup final

INEOS Team UK is forced to tack away after conceding a start penalty. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

It was obvious from fairly far out that the Italian team would be able to close the door, leaving no space on the line to windward and forcing the Brits to either sail around Luna Rossa and end up to leeward and behind or barge in at the windward end.

With few options on the table, Ainslie tried to squeeze between Luna Rossa and the committee boat end of the line. Luna Rossa were able to close the door and the outcome was only ever going to be a penalty for the British team. 

For any racer, it was a painful watch. There are few of us who have not been in a similar position – to windward of the starline with nowhere to go – and you’re taught from an early age never to get stuck in that spot. 

Easy to say, much harder to achieve when you are on the water against one of the finest pre-start helmsmen in the world in Jimmy Spithill. “It was worth taking the risk as we really wanted the right hand side [of the course] for the [better] pressure,” said Ainslie of the start situation. “I would probably do the same again,” he concluded. 

From that start Luna Rossa romped away to what seemed an easy win, extending throughout the race to cross the finish line fully 1 minute 20 seconds clear. 

Luna Rossa leads the Prada Cup Final - Race 5

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli leads INEOS Team UK. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

The second start of the day went better for Ainslie and his team as the Brits led back to the line and won the leeward end of the start. From there they managed to squeeze to windward and close down the gap to Luna Rossa who were forced to tack away early. By the time the boats came back together, the Brits were able to tack dead in front of the Italian team and were never overtaken. 

Perhaps the scorline on paper should buoy the hopes of British supporters – a win is certainly much needed. However, the nature of both races today does little to dispel the mounting feeling that there is a mountain to climb to win this series. 

Tacking problems

Looking back in detail at the opening two days of racing in this Prada Cup Final series shows the British team losing ground in almost every tack as Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli seem to have found a way of getting the boat through the wind more efficiently than their British competition. 

As such, with the Brits behind, all the Italians needed to do was to keep tacking on the Brits’ wind and force them to tack to make ground on them. If the Brits were not aware of this fact on the opening two days of the competition, clearly they have seen this in the data and today represented a different approach. 

When behind in the opening race INEOS did not allow themselves to be forced into tacking quite as regularly. But the problem then, is they were forced to sail much of the race in the dirty air of the Italian team and with few opportunities to pass, being in the same patch of water. 

In the second race, we saw the Brits leading and trying to cover the Italian outfit without getting sucked into a tacking duel. They sailed their own race and managed to work the course geometry to their advantage, essentially forcing Luna Rossa to do more manouvers to try to find a way past. 

This puts the Brits in a tricky spot. If you stay between your opponent and the next mark, you are in a safer position, offering little chance for them to pass you. It is far riskier to allow them some space on the race course and risk being overtaken should they pick up a favourable shift. 

Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

But, if you know the more you both tack, the closer they will get, then staying between your opponent and the mark simply allows them to close down your lead until eventually you are overtaken. 

That the Brits won the second race of the day is certainly a positive. That they won it by a mere 14 seconds having led at the first cross on a course with few tactical options is a serious concern.

Of course, this is America’s Cup racing and teams have won from far more perilous situations than this. But with both boats unable to make any modifications to their equipment during the series hope cannot be pinned on some piece of technical wizardry to make the boat faster. 

The British team can still win this, but to do so, they will need to win the start, and find the delicate balance between covering their opponent and not tacking too often – or hope for stronger winds where the performance of the two teams is more even. 

It is not an impossible task, but the Italian grip on the Prada Cup trophy is tightening, and time is running out to peel their fingers away.

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