Race 5 - Another dramatic and exciting lead change, but what’s up with Oracle?

Fortunes turn fast in the new America’s Cup. Today the switch between the new pace of Oracle downwind and the speed of the Kiwis upwind saw a huge turnaround, resulting in a win for Emirates Team New Zealand. But the day continued with shocks and surprises.

The day started with the breeze close to the limit, a punchy 17-23 knots. The start saw a reversal of what we’ve seen so far between these two with Oracle taking the windward position as both boats sneaked towards the line. In the closing seconds Dean Barker pressed the bpws down to accelerate underneath Oracle and for a couple of seconds it looked like it would work. But then Spithill hit the afterburners and smoked over the top of the Kiwis with more pace out of the blocks than we’ve seen yet from the Defenders.

As they rounded the first mark Spithill was ahead by 3.7 seconds. As the downhill leg played out Oracle continued to look more powerful than ever before.

But seconds before Oracle rounded the bottom mark we heard, ‘foiling tack OK?’ from someone on board Oracle. Presumably tactician John Kostecki.

Foiling tack? Something else we’ve never seen in an AC34 race as Oracle spun around the leeward mark to head straight back towards Alcatraz and out of the strong flood tide.

When the Kiwis rounded 8 seconds later they took their time for the tack, convinced that the cone of slacker tide behind Alcatraz was wide enough to remain in without losing speed.

This move pulled them back into the match to the point that on the first cross the Kiwis had to duck Oracle. They could then press into the slacker tide as Oracle pushed out into foul tide. This was the turning point in the race as the Kiwis set themselves up to pounce.

But the real surprise was to come a minute or so later as Oracle appeared to be sailing far lower than the Kiwis, hemorrhaging distance by the second. Was there a problem on Oracle? It certainly looked like it with the boat slow and low.

There was no chatter onboard Spithill’s boat either, as if they didn’t want to talk about any technical problems for fear of being heard by the world.

By the top mark the game was all over, barring disasters, as the Kiwis rounded 1min 17 seconds ahead, a massive margin considering how much pace Oracle has shown previously.

By the finish Spithill had pulled back to 1min 4 seconds so clearly no problem with downwind speed. The stats also suggested that the issue was upwind with Oracle sailing further and more slowly.

Yet in the quick interview after the race Spithill gave no indication of what was wrong other than giving credit to the Kiwis upwind speed and suggesting that Oracle had chosen the wrong jib for the job.

“It’s a tough way to win races but it’s working for us,” said Barker after the race.

Was he surprised at Oracle’s handbrake turn at the bottom mark?
“No we’re not surprised we’ve been practicing it as well but we thought the tidal cone was wide enough for us to round more slowly.’

Team boss Grant Dalton was back on board after being ashore for the team’s only loss. Would he stay?

“As long as he’s enjoying it we’ll keep him around,” said Barker with a wry smile.

But then came the biggest surprise as Oracle played their trump card and pulled out of the second race of the today.

Each team can pull out of just one race during the series. The original idea was to allow for gear problems and although it doesn’t have to be the reason to pull out, if a team does use this card it leaves itself exposed later in the series if they do suffer a breakdown.

As the boats headed to shore there was no sign at all aboard Oracle that there was something to fix raising speculation that the team may have retired after a bruising loss. But surely this is difficult to believe? Perhaps more likely is that the team doesn’t want to show any sign of what is wrong with their boat or their setup for the day.

Shortly after the race Spithill stepped off the boat and was seen talking with Coutts in the support boat before climbing back onto the cat. What was said, what was the issue and what had Oracle got in mind?

“We wanted to go back and re-group,” said Spithill. “We think they’ve got a bit of an edge on us so we thought we would use our card tactically.”

A bold call and surely an indication of how seriously Oracle is taking the threat from the Kiwis.

For what it’s worth my take on the events is that Oracle has two problems, setup and communication issue at the back of the bus. Both issues pointed towards being slower than the Kiwis upwind in the second race and the odds were they would lose. With such clear odds against, there was no point in racing a second race, even if it meant using their Joker.

The evidence for this loss of upwind performance was clear in race 5. It was not the handbrake turn that caused the problem but the setup of the boat beforehand, one that they couldn’t change between races. On the upwind leg when they were lower by a big margin, they just couldn’t point as they headed across to the mainland side. The difference in performance was so big that it looked like there may be a gear problem. Yet their pace on the downhill leg suggested no such thing as they gained a little time here.

Tactics also seemed to be an issue on board today. At first it looked like some of the strange manoeuvres on the beat could have been to overcome a technical problem but at the press conference there was no suggestion that this was the case. Indeed, the press conference added fuel to the speculation that there would be some crew changes for Thursday. Tactician John Kostecki was clearly a target and while Spithill didn’t suggest that his position was at risk, he appeared to miss several opportunities to confirm his complete faith in his tactician.

For the first time Kostecki wasn’t at the press conference but as Spithill pointed out, neither was Glenn Ashby for the Kiwis. It was all about showing other team members to the press.

But when pressed on whether he could guarantee Kostecki would be on the boat on Thursday he said, “I can’t guarantee anything. I probably can’t guarantee I’ll be there. It’s too early to make a decision right now. It’s part of the reason why we played the card. We need some time to assess our programme and the boat and get it heading in the right direction. Fortunately we’ve got some time and a lot of races left.”

From what we’ve seen and more importantly heard from the onboard audio, the tactical chatter on Oracle is very different to the talk onboard the Kiwi boat. Barker’s tactician Ray Davies is constantly feeding Dean with the next key issues and moves while the conversation appears to go the other way aboard Oracle with Spithill asking the questions.

Even the experts were confused at what had happened aboard Oracle.

“I don’t see a tool box on deck for the confidence repair required,” said commentator Ken Read. While Brad Butterworth described the team’s tactics as, ‘the inmates running the asylum.”

Punchy stuff, but from two people who have witnessed at first hand America’s Cup crises.

What everybody wanted to know now was what Coutts and Spithill had said in their brief meeting on the team RIB shortly after the race. Who was grilling who? At the press conference Spithill wasn’t going to tell us, but I guess we’ll have a better idea come Thursday.

Racing resumes on Thursday, first start 1315 local (2115 BST)

Score so far

Kiwis 4
USA -1

Americas Cup Race 3 NZL USA
Distance Sailed (km) 21.199 21.435
Average Speed (kts) 30.21 29.17
Max Speed (kts) 46.94 44.93
Winning margin 1min 4sec