Percy and Simpson secure a medal and Ainslie is one scalp short of Gold
Ben Ainslie took a giant step towards Gold today in the second race of the day. His first race had jangled the nerves of all those who watched him slip into the pack only to come back to within a place of his arch rival Jonas Hogh-Christensen. The second race today, the final one before the medal race on Sunday, was both spectacular and perplexing.
The breeze had built and so had the tide, weeping the fleet upwind to the west and producing the bigger waves that Ainslie prefers. Conditions had got closer to those that had seen him dominate yesterday.
Ainslie nailed his start, picking a position close to the pin end but bang on time and with clear air allowing him to sail a long starboard tack out towards the faster tide to the south.
“For once I managed to find the turbo button this week,” he said as he came ashore, cautious smiles replacing the stern look that had greeted us yesterday.
Hogh-Christensen didn’t get such a good start and was forced to tack away onto port shortly after the gun went, pushing him over towards the less favoured side of the course before he could get sufficient clear air to tack back. A significant setback for the Dane.
By the weather mark Ben had slipped into second to the Dutchman PJ Postma and the Dane was back in 6th.
Just a few minutes later Ainslie had overtaken Postma on the fast reach across the top of the course to take the lead, an impressive performance and a statement to the rest of the fleet.
On the long downwind leg Ainslie, who is lighter than most in the fleet used his advantage to extend his lead. Famous for his aggressive pumping style downwind Ainslie was working his heart out to use every puff and wave to extend and it was working. Meanwhile Hogh-Christensen who was also pumping hard hauled himself up into second.
But then came the surprise. Having pulled out a huge lead Ben eased his sheets and slowed down to wait for the Dane, the gloves were coming off.
But Ainslie was a long way ahead, how could he affect the game from here without risking giving away too much to the rest of the fleet?
The answer appeared to lie with the proximity of the Dutchman who was just to leeward of the Dane. Was Ben about to use the Dutchman who had accused him of hitting the mark in a complicated match racing move, or was he just hoping to get the Dutchman in front? Did Ptsma have any idea of what Ben was planning?
“Ben has been in these positions many times, he knows what he is doing,” said Peiter Jan Postma. “If I had not passed Jonas he would have interfered with us perhaps.”
Which was precisely what was going through Ainslie’s mind as he mulled over how he would get more points between him and the Dane.
“I thought about maybe going back but it was probably too risky in case something went wrong,” said Ainslie. “Thankfully it all worked out. I did think about slowing down a bit more and maybe affecting his wind going up the beat. I think it was the right decision to carry on.”
In the event he didn’t need to engage as the Dutchman and the Dane got locked into a brief private battle in which the Dutchman won. Ainslie now had a buffer.
One more point between Ainslie and Hogh-Christensen helped to ensure that Sunday’s Medal race would be a match race between the two.
With ben leading the Dutchman second and the Dane third, the order remained until the finish. So how did the Great Dane feel?
“Would I have liked more points on Ben? Of course,” he said. “But it didn’t turn out that way and we are going to have an epic battle on Sunday. But we can’t go into too much of a match race because the Dutch guy could win. He’s only 14 points behind so if Ben comes worse than 8th the Dutch guy gets gold.”
As a former match racing world champion to say nothing of his many years in America’s Cup racing, Ainslie has a record in match racing. Hogh-Christensen does not, yet the result is still far from a done deal with plenty of pressure for the final showdown which will take place in front of 4,500 spectators on the Nothe.
“It’s a bit perverse but I quite like these situations,” said Ainslie with wry smile and chuckle. “It’s going to be really tough. Jonas has sailed very well all week and I’m very impressed with that. It’s going to be a really tough battle but it’s going to be great.”
Was he concerned that others in the fleet might try to obstruct his path to Gold?
“I don’t think so, there’s a lot at stake for everybody,” he said. “PJ has a chance for Gold, and both silver and bronze are up for grabs, so its not like anyone can sit back and give up. Everyone is racing for themselves. Yesterday was a one off incident where you had the mark rounding incident and there weren’t many people around it was frustrating but you have to move on.”
Meanwhile on the Star course Britain’s Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson had secured a medal with another couple of solid performances scoring a 4th and a 1st in the last two of their fleet races. The Brazilians Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada won the first race and came third in the second to demonstrate just how difficult every point is.
Percy was quick to acknowledge the standard of sailing throughout the fleet.
“There are three teams in it now and it’s going to be spectacular sailing win, lose or draw. These are three teams that are on unbelievable form. It’s incredibly frustrating that myself and Andrew have sailed better than we’ve ever done before and we can’t get any distance on them,” he said before continuing to pay tribute to the other competitors.
Percy and Simpson’s performance this week has been very impressive yet it has been conducted away from the main media spotlight, despite being on the same course area as the Finns.
This is also how their campaign appears to have benefited in the last few months to the Games. While Ainslie has taken the bulk of the media heat, this pair have been out of the spotlight with their heads down and focussed on the job. Their body language and reserved comments after the racing has been confirmation enough of how seriously they are taking this task.
The reality on Sunday is that they have won a medal whatever the outcome and can only lose Gold if they come worse than fourth.
Again, Gold is far from a done deal but the prospects for Sunday look good.
For British supporters this could be seismic Sunday.