Andy Rice's America's Cup diary: the AC50 one-design elements were a good idea but can anyone make Oracle pay for its generosity as defender of the Cup?

One of the unwritten rules of the America’s Cup is that every decision the defender makes must be in the interests of self-interest. What sets the Cup apart from every other major sporting event is the inherent unfairness of it all, that if you win it you get to make the rules. So it naturally follows that if you do get to write your own rules, you write them in such a way that it’s nigh on impossible for anyone else to prise the Auld Mug out of your hands.

Seven years ago, when BMW Oracle Racing beat Alinghi 2-0 in that extraordinary mismatch between the Americans’ wing-masted trimaran and the soft-sailed Swiss catamaran, Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts were seen as the white knights who would clean up the Cup after accusing Ernesto Bertarelli of skewing the deck in his favour. Since then Coutts has gone on to make himself every bit as unpopular as his former Alinghi boss, with a number of controversial decisions that have been seen as self-serving.

But while some of those accusations may be true, the one for which the five-time Cup winner really deserves some credit is Coutts’s decision to downscale the size of the boats, and to make them one-design in many important respects. From the hugely complex and expensive AC72s that contested the 2013 Cup in San Francisco, an AC62 was briefly envisaged before that was superseded by the more affordable AC50s, six of which we are about to see go into action this summer.

Some of the biggest components of the class have been tightly defined and controlled in the AC50 rule, such as the hulls, the platform and the wing rig. As Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill told me recently: “It just doesn’t make sense that the teams spend a whole lot of time and resources designing hulls, because the hulls aren’t in the water anymore. The three big things that will win the Cup will be the foil design, the control systems, and aerodynamics.”

Without making large elements of the AC50 one-design, smaller teams like Groupama Team France and SoftBank Team Japan wouldn’t be on the start line. The other thing that has really benefited the Japanese in particular is the opportunity to train on the Great Sound in Bermuda alongside the well-funded campaigns such as Oracle and Artemis Racing.

Finding the secret to the foiling tack

Although Land Rover BAR won the America’s Cup World Series after clinching the final event in Japan in November, Spithill believes Ben Ainslie’s team have been missing a trick not getting to Bermuda sooner. It’s when you line up alongside and against the other teams that your learning curve rises exponentially, says the Oracle skipper. A case in point, perhaps, is that Dean Barker and the Japanese team claimed to be first to pull off a foiling tack, with the Americans and Swedes also managing to achieve this most difficult of manoeuvres. Ainslie will be keen to nail the foiling tack sooner rather than later, as this is thought to be the killer move that could determine winning or losing on the tight race course.

The Brits did relocate from Portsmouth to Bermuda just before Christmas but the French and the Kiwis aren’t expected in Bermuda until February. Although the teams weren’t permitted to launch their 50ft race boats until the New Year, no one did launch straight away and probably won’t until early February. This is due to a surprise new rule that states: “a blackout period of 28 consecutive days shall be taken by each competitor, which must begin on or after 9 January 2017”.

Although there hasn’t been an official explanation for the blackout, it’s thought to be part of a package of consolation prizes for Emirates Team New Zealand, which won a dispute against the America’s Cup Events Authority after the ACEA reneged on an agreement to hold the round-robin AC qualifiers in Auckland. The Kiwis are shipping their boat to Bermuda during January, so the blackout period effectively prevents the others from getting more training time in their race boats.

Once they do get their race boats wet, the teams won’t have a moment to waste. It will be full bore until 26 May for the start of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup qualifiers and challenger playoffs.

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