I take a look at the field for the solo round the world race and pick my best bets

Which of the 20 solo skippers lining up to win the Vendée Globe round the world race this weekend is most likely to win?

First of all, let me tell you how many are not. Probably somewhere between 8 and 10 of the skippers won’t, because they will not finish. That’s the bald statistical probability, based on the history of this race: since the first in 1989 the drop-out or failure rate has been an alarming 50% – and four years ago it rose to 70%, with five dismastings and no less than four keel failures.

(Indeed the race has been dogged by 16 different incidents of keel failures since the famous rescues of Tony Bullimore, Raphael Dinelli and Theirry Dubois from their upturned yachts in 1997.)

So, without going further into the reasons and remedies, which is another article entirely, it’s logical to expect structural and other major failures to sweep away a portion of the Vendée Globe fleet, whatever their prospects on paper.

With that caveat, there are some skippers to put your money on. Top of the list, for me, is previous winner Vincent Riou. His boat PRB was the first of a new wave of lower-powered, lighter weight VPLP/Verdier designs to launch and so Riou has had the opportunity to get to know and trial the boat really well, and better than most.

But you also have to look at his record and sailing style to understand why he is so well rated. Nicknamed ‘Vincent the Terrible’, Riou is anything but. He is measured, calm, outwardly a bit dull but intensely focused and analytical – and he is legendary for his metronome sailing performance and consistent results.

Next on my list is Jean-Pierre Dick. He is a cerebral sailor and has not had to waste much sailing or design time foraging for renewed sponsorship as he is backed and part-sponsored by his family’s animal pharmaceutical company, Virbac.

He also has a new VPLP/Verdier design, Paprec Virbac 3. Dick has had some key race wins over the years, mostly notably the Barcelona World Race, and is justifiably considered a favourite in France.
The only thing is that his winning track record has most been two-handed and he has not yet managed to convert that into a big solo win over long distances.

Expect to see him at the front, but still a bit of a question mark over him for an overall win.

Armel Le Cleac’h is sailing Michel Desjoyeaux’s former VPLP/Verdier Foncia, in which Mich Desj won the last Vendée Globe. The talented Le Cleac’h is said to prey on rivals and is nicknamed The Jackal. He’s very quick and very sharp.

However, his rivals during the last Vendée Globe (in which he was 2nd in a depleted field) noted that he as soon as he got to the Southern Ocean four years ago he backed right off.

Veteran Southern Ocean solo sailors – and there are quite a few this time – say that an overall win is about being able to keep going at high speed across the South. So the question here is will Le Cleac’h have the guts and confidence to keep in with the peleton past the Cape of Good Hope?

Definitely one to watch is Jérémie Beyou. Twice winner of the ruthlessly competitive Figaro one-design race, Beyou is one of the most technically accomplished and focused solo skippers around and he should be a player and a decent bet for a podium finish. Still, his track record in IMOCA 60s has been patchy over longer distances.

So what about the two leading Brits in the fleet, Mike Golding and Alex Thomson. What are their chances?

Golding hasn’t done much of late and so has slid down the rankings table on paper. But when gear failure hasn’t claimed him, he has always been on or close to the podium and there’s no real reason to expect less now.

Could he win? Yes. He’s sailing his greatly upgraded and well-tested IMOCA 60 from last time, now called Gamesa.

Will he? Sadly, on past record of dismastings and gear problems the answer has to be probably not. Even he agrees that his best chance was probably four years ago, when he was in the lead in the Southern Ocean before losing his rig.

Still, fingers crossed for him. He has devoted almost 16 years of his career to this cause.

Interestingly, when asked about his thoughts on the race, Golding told me: “One of my fears is that I’ll get into a head-to-head with Alex [Thomson]; he’s a bit older and smarter.”

And that’s the issue hanging over Alex Thomson. The flamboyant Briton is known equally for setting speed records and crashing out spectacularly. He says he desperately wants to finish this race, and this will be his third attempt, but could he really be tempted to throttle back to lengthen the odds?

Counting in his favour is more experience and a tried and tested Farr design from four years ago, so I’m wondering – as are many of his rivals – are all the pieces of the puzzle finally in place for a top result?

I see the wildcard in the pack as François Gabart, a young protégé of the maestro himself, Michel Desjoyeaux. One of the youngest skippers in the race, Gabart is the most likely newcomer to upset the established pecking order.

He’s sailing another new VPLP/Verdier boat, Macif, and although this is his first Vendée he was Michel Desjoyeaux’s choice for the two-handed Barcelona World Race (mast damage forced them out). He is considered clever, wise and dangerous, and I’d rate him a long shot to win and good odds for a podium place.

For me the old guard of Jean Le Cam, Kito de Pavant and Marc Guillemot, consistent performers all, are nonetheless outside bets. Le Cam, alias ‘King Jean’, is back with a new boat (it was Loïck Peyron’s Farr-design Gitana Eighty). But in monohulls as in his previous ORMA 60 career, Le Cam has tended to sit middle of the pack so for me a race win would be a bit of a surprise.

Similarly, Kito de Pavant and Marc Guillemot, in his revamped VPLP/Verdier Safran from four years ago, are safe pairs of hands, but odds still seem stacked against a blistering result.

Finally – though certainly not literally – what about Samantha Davies? She was 3rd last time. Could she improve that result?

Unfortunately I think not. In the last race her podium result was partly the effect of swingeing attrition, as she was racing an old design that couldn’t keep up with the new boats. This time a shortage of sponsorship funds has her back in a comparable position.

Sam’s budget only stretches to a last generation IMOCA 60. She also gave birth to her first child last year and, as she told me herself recently, she’ll start short on full preparation and fitness. Still, she’s a clever and accomplished racer and a good bet for a respectable finish – plus her reports are a joy to follow.

On the subject of design failures, the question is what have the class and teams done during the last four years to improve reliability, something nearly all agreed as a priority in 2009? I’ll be talking to designers and sailors and looking at that over the next few days.

In the meantime, are you interested in reading more about the Vendée Globe, what’s in store for the sailors and an in-depth look at Mike Golding’s bid (his last?) for Vendée glory? If you are, click here to buy a copy or download a digital copy of our latest issue.