The 35th America’s Cup promises to be one of the most closely fought ever. Andy Rice looks at the reasons why
If Jimmy Spithill had been invited to step into a time machine ten years ago to catch a glimpse of what his future looked like, even his famously cool head would have exploded with what he saw.
Flying about the water at 50 knots in catamarans? It would have seemed like pure science-fiction.
Ten years ago Spithill had never even sailed a multihull. The young Australian was plying his trade as one of the hottest match racing helmsmen, employed to get the best out of Luna Rossa’s Version 5 keelboat at the 2007 America’s Cup.
No Version 5 ever exceeded much more than 10 knots, upwind or down. Now he pilots a craft capable of almost five times that speed.
As Spithill sits at the wheel of a foiling spaceship capable of warp speed, with an array of PlayStation-style controls at his fingertips, all those wasted hours of his youth playing high-speed video games mustn’t seem so wasted after all.
Ten years ago, Russell Coutts had been cast into outer darkness. The infamous ‘Coutts Clause’ put in place by Alinghi was designed to keep the wily Kiwi out of the game after he had so spectacularly fallen out with his former employer, Ernesto Bertarelli.
How the tables have turned since Coutts’s replacement boss, Larry Ellison, has given the New Zealander free rein to shape the Cup as he sees fit.
All that we see today originates from the creative mind of Coutts. Not that everyone likes what they see, because this brave new world is not everyone’s idea of what the Cup should be.
The single driving force behind everything leading up to the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda is Russell Coutts’s strong desire for commercialisation. He has borrowed heavily from Ellison, one of the wealthiest patrons ever to have contested the Cup, in order to steer the event away from its reliance on the privately wealthy towards a model of corporate sponsorship.
After the barnstorming finale of the 34th Cup in San Francisco, you might have thought that the corporate world would be queuing up to plaster their logos down the side of these spectacular boats. But the sponsorship world is never as simple as that, and we have yet to see this drive for commercial viability achieve much traction.
Faltering commercial aspirations aside, Coutts’s radical vision is primed to deliver one of the most thrilling events in the Cup’s 166-year history. In some ways, that’s not saying much.
Any rose-tinted views of this event might cloud the fact that the vast majority of Cups have been boring, one-sided affairs in which one boat clearly proved superior within the first minute of the first race.
We thought that was going to be the case four years ago on San Francisco Bay, especially after a dire Louis Vuitton Cup where Emirates Team New Zealand was often the only boat to finish a race because of the unreliability of the other challengers’ AC72s. Who could have predicted such a thrilling showdown in the final?
Now the question is how the action in Bermuda will compare to past Cups. On the laws of probability, it’s highly unlikely to live up to the once-in-a-lifetime thrills of the 2013 finale, but Bermuda certainly has the ingredients for a much more open and unpredictable event than perhaps any Cup previously.
This is because there has never been a Cup in which the challengers have conducted so much full-bore practice racing.
Not only that, they’ve been consorting with the devil – the Defender!
To the traditionalists, doing anything to help the Defender is the height of heresy. And they’ve got a point. The Defender almost always stacks the deck in its favour.
So why help them out any more than they’ve helped themselves already? Wouldn’t it have made more sense – if you were really serious about wresting the Auld Mug away from USA – for the challengers to have organised the racing between just the five of them?
Part of what governs this unusual spirit of collaboration is the so-called framework agreement, which four of the five challengers signed up to in January along with Oracle. It’s a groundbreaking document that, for the first time in the Cup’s history, means that we know the dates of the next two editions – 2019 and 2021 – and we know that the AC50 will continue to be the weapon of choice.
The only team that refused to join the party was Emirates Team New Zealand, with the Kiwis objecting on some fairly woolly grounds. On the face of it, the Kiwis are the most commercially driven of any Cup team, so why wouldn’t they welcome the framework?
Probably because behind the scenes the Kiwis are much more reliant on the financial backing of a few sugar daddies, not least Patrizio Bertelli, the Prada tycoon who took his Luna Rossa toys away in a huff a couple of years ago. Bertelli is thought to despise pretty much anything that Ellison and Coutts are doing, so the more he can upset their grand scheme, the happier he tends to be.
Not only are the Kiwis the political black sheep of this Cup, in technological terms their decision to put their four power crew on bikes rather than standard grinding pedestals sets them apart from their rivals. Word is that they might be generating up to 40 per cent more power through their legs than other crew through their arms.
In which case, why didn’t everyone jump on the bike? Most of the teams say they considered it but rejected it on grounds of increased windage and the extra time required to hop on and off the bike during manoeuvres.
Generating more power gives you the ability to trim the wing rig and the foils more regularly and more accurately. Which means you might be able to carry thinner, smaller foils that are inherently less stable – which might mean you end up with higher top-end speed.
But although many of the large components of the AC50 are one-design, not least the hulls themselves, the design challenge is proving greater than ever. This time round, developments could add up to four or five knots of top-end speed, but at what cost to manoeuvring in the tight confines of the race course?
There’s a huge compromise between ultimate speed, lift, stability and reliability. A beam failure resulted in Artemis Racing’s boat folding up into pieces during training, albeit it was one of the Swedes’ test craft and not their race boat.
In the early phases of practice racing, however, it was Artemis that were setting the pace in their race boat with Oracle not far off. SoftBank Team Japan, skippered by the experienced Kiwi Dean Barker, is also showing good signs of speed, while Groupama Team France is working hard to get on terms with their rivals.
The biggest surprise – and a worry for British fans – has been how slow Land Rover BAR has been out of the blocks in Bermuda. While the crew have been putting in some excellent boat handling around the course, speed through the water has been distinctly lacking. Ben Ainslie points out they were still working on their rudders and foils.
But if anyone has benefited from the practice sessions, it is the Brits. They’ve seen where they need to be and how much they need to improve if they’re going to stand a chance of making it to the finals.