The Swiss billionaire shook up the America’s Cup with Team Alinghi. Is he tempted to rejoin the ever-more-radical competition? Matthew Sheahan found out
When Ernesto Bertarelli’s Alinghi (SUI64) crossed the finish line for the final time in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2003, the Swiss 5-0 victory was more than just a decisive new entry in the America’s Cup history books. As the pharmaceuticals billionaire and his teammates hoisted the trophy above their heads, the America’s Cup was on course to change.
Ernesto Bertarelli was already famous in the sailing world for his team’s slick performances – and infamous in New Zealand for having poached the country’s top sailing talent. Four years later, in Valencia, his team defended the 32nd America’s Cup. But this time their win led to change of a different type.
Frustration, acrimony and protracted legal disputes followed in the build up to the 33rd America’s Cup. And when the racing finally got underway in February 2010 in giant multihulls, Alinghi was defeated.
Since that loss Bertarelli has been out of the Cup and away from the spotlight. Instead, he returned to his own sailing aboard the fast, lightweight multihulls that have been his preferred style of racing for many years.
The Alinghi name continued in the Extreme Sailing Series, then GC32 Tour, and aboard the D35 cat which Bertarelli races on his home patch of Lake Geneva.
Bertarelli is different from many of the super-wealthy owners in the sport. A hands-on, talented and accomplished sailor, he is one of the few who can genuinely hold his own against the pros at a busy, high speed leeward mark rounding.
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Yet despite his ability, enthusiasm and passion for racing at the top level, he has remained largely silent since 2010, as the America’s Cup has gone through another series of major transitions.
When wingmasted cats became the new weapons of choice for the 34th America’s Cup, many speculated that Bertarelli would come back into the Cup. That speculation was reignited when he made a trip to Bermuda in 2017 where he was rumoured to have dined with several of his former friends and foes.
Might the foiling monohull and the very open new design rules tempt him to return?
In a rare and exclusive interview, I spoke to Bertarelli at his home on the edge of Lake Geneva on the eve of the biggest lake race in the world, the Mirabaud Bol d’Or, a race that he has won seven times.
I asked him whether he missed the America’s Cup? “It was hard to get away because I still really love the Cup. It is the pinnacle of our sport and it’s this particular event, which needs to drive our sport forward.
“So it was tough to leave it at a time when I thought we had done some great things. I thought Valencia 2007 had brought sailing to a very good place. It was also difficult to see it then go to a multihull, which is obviously a part of the sport which I also really love. It was tough to see that happen and not participate.
“Having said that, I had won the Cup twice and by the end of the third campaign I was a little tired of the politics, the work that needed to be done in order to participate and, frankly, some of the characters. I had had enough. And so in that sense it was great to go back to sailing for fun, pure fun.
“I really don’t have any regrets and I think that Alinghi is in a good place. The transition also allowed me to look after some of the younger sailors here in Switzerland, build a team around them and now we have a very strong team. So we are pleased with where we have got to with Alinghi and the story is not over.”
“SailGP is interesting. The problem I see is that it’s not really a competitive series. With one owner owning all the boats it doesn’t quite do it for me. It’s a great opportunity for some sailors to sail these types of boats, but I don’t know where it is going to go really.
“I’m a lot more interested in what’s going to happen with the Cup and the new foiling boats that are being designed and built. I really hope that in New Zealand we’re going to have a competitive event.”
So how interested was he in getting back into the America’s Cup? “I was tempted,” he admits. “There were quite a few people that wanted to see Alinghi back in the Cup, and that includes sponsors.
“We are a competitive team, we know the game, the multihull and the AC50 class had started to get more settled. I felt that that would be an opportunity to get back into the Cup without reinventing the wheel, yet still with an opportunity to win based on skill rather than on funds and on engineering an innovative breakthrough.
“I think the danger every time you introduce a new class – and this has been a problem since Valencia – is that innovative breakthroughs become a lot more important than sailing skills and teamwork.
“Research and development requires money, so this becomes the game. You still need people, but you need more engineers than sailors and this tilts the balance a bit too much towards design than on the water performance.
“Even though it’s fascinating to see these boats being created, and hearing and seeing some of the mock-ups and understanding what’s going on, you realise that most of the work is happening indoors. This was not exactly what I was looking for. I really enjoy going sailing.”
This might come as a surprise to some who would argue that the Alinghi team, with its deep pockets and reputation for having a sharp focus on success, was happy with the high spending arms race until it went against them.
Yet, a look back at the style of the campaigns, and the balance between design and sailing prowess, suggests that Bertarelli chose to spend his money on people rather than technology. The 33rd America’s Cup Deed of Gift Match is a good example of this.
“The DoG match was a very interesting experience and I have no regrets there, I learned a lot. And one thing I learned was that it’s very hard to compete if the rules are changed. In any Cup cycle you want to understand how the rules are going to be set, but the rules are never set upfront.
“It’s a little bit like walking into a casino. If the odds are too skewed on the side of the house, you’re not going to go back. The DoG match was more about how can we twist the rules to favour us versus the other guy.
“Ultimately our boat was a great boat and the basic structural platform was used in the next Cup. But when the wingsail came in I just said: ‘This is getting out of control. I’m going to have to spend another €30 million for a wingsail and it might not stop there because the rules might change yet again.’
“So we stayed with the conventional sail knowing that the wing was going to be a big element.“
Back to monohulls
Has he ruled out a move to the new AC75 monohulls some day? “I need to see what’s going to happen in New Zealand. Once one boat crosses the line we will know more. We will know who is in charge and who they choose as a Challenger. Every cycle is different.
“But, I like stability because I think ultimately the magic in the America’s Cup is the match. And for a match you need to try to find a ways to bring the teams together.
“In Valencia the magic of the event was that all the boats had their moments because they had a chance to be matched up to a bigger team. Today with the current class, unless you have a massive budget you have no chance.”
As an owner who enjoys being an integral part of the team, does he think there is still a place for an owner aboard? “There is space for owners and I’d argue that you need an owner who is involved and understands the platform, understands what’s happening in the team and on the water, and then ultimately makes the right call for the Cup,” Bertarelli comments.
“I don’t think foilers are any different to any other boats. They’ll become safer. People are learning to sail them much better. The first time I sailed a foiler was around the Isle of Wight in 2015 against the British America’s Cup team. We were both on GC32s and we were both struggling. We were wiping out on the waves. It was physically painful.
“Now I sail the GC32 and the teams are very skilled and boats don’t wipe out anymore, at least only once in a while. We foil gybe and foil tack, and what is great is that sailing is more exciting.”
After an intense period in the spotlight of the America’s Cup with all the political arguments and public scrutiny, is he a different person now? “I hope I’ve changed. I think as you mature you learn more about yourself. You are able to take a bit more distance. Maybe I’m more aware of the sort of unnecessary friction that happens. I think I’ve grown to be less affected by it now.
“If I was in the Cup I’d want to make sure that there was not too much of that and accept it as a part of every relationship. So I think I learned to deal with things better.”
Having won sailing’s most prestigious trophy, twice, what drives him to carry on sailing? “It’s not so much the trophies which bring me back to sailing, but because sailing is both a mechanical and a team sport, when things happen at the highest level, I find it fascinating. I think it’s magic.
“Those moments where time stops and you’re in a different place. You’re in complete harmony with your team, your boat and the wind. You make the call and by magic the shift is there. We had that last weekend. We didn’t win, but for about half an hour we sailed perfectly. It’s a fantastic sport for that.”
How Team Alinghi changed the America’s Cup
Alinghi’s win in Auckland in 2003 signalled the end of Team New Zealand’s dominant reign. The Swiss victory in the 31st America’s Cup was the first and only time a challenger has won on its first attempt.
The 32nd Cup, as envisioned by Bertarelli and the brains trust at Alinghi, was very different. First, having won on behalf of a club in a country that had no ‘arm of the sea’, Bertarelli put the hosting of the event out to tender. More controversy followed.
Confirming the adage that ‘if you win the Cup, you make the rules,’ the show took root in Valencia, Spain. A new, public-friendly model was rolled out across the entire Valencian venue and the circus grew like never before.
While high fences and security cameras surrounded many bases, Alinghi opened their doors to anyone who fancied a look inside. A free to enter spectator area, a visitor centre with educational exhibits and simulators and a shop reinforced Bertarelli’s plan to turn the America’s Cup inside out.
On the water Bertarelli’s team won again, in the last event for the IACC monohulls in 2007. But negotiations for the next generation of boat for AC33 were derailed as a fierce argument over the validity of the Spanish Challenger of Record.
The Americans took Alinghi’s Société Nautique de Genève to court and won. The 33rd Cup bottomed out, leaving the match to operate under the most basic terms of the Deed of Gift, or DoG match as it is often referred to.
With only a few rules the arms race between defender Alinghi and challenger Oracle Racing ramped up as their designs went to the very edge of what was possible. A giant cat and a monster tri emerged.
But despite the mass of speculation these two America’s Cup leviathans triggered, when it came to it the racing in 2010 was an anti-climax. Only two races were required.
Larry Ellison’s Oracle Racing won, with Bertarelli’s former right-hand man Russell Coutts in charge. It was a bitter pill for the Swiss boss to swallow, especially as the event marked the first step for the Cup into a world of high performance catamarans, Bertarelli’s speciality.
Who is Ernesto Bertarelli?
Born in Rome in 1965, Ernesto Bertarelli graduated from Babson College and Harvard Business School, USA, before inheriting Serono from his father in 1995. The Geneva-based pharmaceuticals company was then worth around $100m.
As CEO and deputy chairman he turned the company into a multibillion-dollar biotech company specialising in reproductive health, multiple sclerosis, and metabolism. The company was sold to Germany’s Merck KGaA in 2006 for $13.3bn.
Bertarelli’s parents were both keen sailors and he was introduced to sailing early on. His sister Dona is also a keen racing sailor and owns the 140ft trimaran Spindrift as well as racing a D35 cat on Lake Geneva.
He lives in Gstaad and Geneva with his wife, Kirsty, a former Miss UK and a singer-songwriter, and their three children.
First published in the December 2019 edition of Yachting World.