Sun, breeze and stars, the AC World Series finals for Super Sunday had it all. Matthew Sheahan reports from San Francisco
Match race final
The bookies had James Spithill down as the favourite in the match race final against his boss Russell Coutts, but only just. Conditions were superb with bright sunshine and a 20 knot breeze pressing up against an ebb tide to spice things up. The prospects couldn’t be better for the kind of battle that the thousands of spectators had been told to expect. National TV was also hooking in as NBC broadcast the racing live across the States. There was plenty of pressure for all and plenty at stake for an event that has worked for two years to get to this stage – a modern era America’s Cup style final for the masses.
But what no one had banked on was that the match would see so many lead changes and last second dramas in a 16 minute race.
The action started with Coutts talking the lead at the first mark only to be overtaken by Spithill who managed to hitch a ride with a gust, sailed deep for a few seconds and then cut the corner on Coutts as the pair gybed away from the shore. The match between team mates had clearly started.
At the bottom gate for the first time the boats split to round opposite marks. Coutts came towards the shore, Spithill out into the Bay. A few minutes later it was clear that Coutts had gained the upper hand thanks to a wind shift.
By the weather mark Coutts was around 25 seconds ahead, a massive lead in ACWS terms when the course is just two laps and 16 minutes. Little changed for the next lap and Spithill continued to trail. But Spithill never gives up and has proved time and again how good he is at coming from behind.
As the pair came towards the top mark Spithill was now within 5 seconds of Coutts. They split gybes on the downwind leg and came blasting into the final mark before the finish at 25 knots. Spithill appeared to keep his foot pressed to the floor a fraction of a second longer and gained a few metres advantage on Coutts as they fired into the finishing line in a double ball of spray.
The photo finish that had the crowd going nuts was everything that the organisers would have wanted. Dream conditions, a dream finish as the home team went hammer and tongs at each other.
In the end it was Coutts who was awarded the win as Spithill had picked up two penalties, one for breaching the electronic boundary and the other for an incident at the final mark.
Coutts was the ACWS San Francisco Match Racing champion, how did he feel?
“Revenge at last!” came the reply.
The 11 boat fleet race was a similar scramble for honours in conditions that were just getting better for spectators who had started to ignore their form guides as the back of the pack came to the front.
Terry Hutchinson on Artemis White had led the charge out from the first mark but slipped back progressively into the fleet throughout the race. Now the boats to watch were Luna Rossa Piranha skippered by Chris Draper and team Korea driven by Nathan Outteridge. Those that have watched ACWS racing closely in the past, especially when the breeze is up will know how these two expert 49er sailors seem to dominate the racing.
“To be honest these boats are easier to get around the weather mark than a 49er in these conditions,” said Draper after the race. “I guess we do have a bit of an advantage there because we are comfortable with the boat handling in a breeze which allows us to concentrate on sending the boat at speed safely. In these conditions it is often about keeping the boat under control rather than exploiting a tactical advantage.”
But as Draper and Outteridge battled it out in the two lap race with Draper keeping the upper hand, there was a third player coming into the mix – Spithill. His ability to come back from dire positions in the fleet has been particularly impressive this week as Outteridge confirmed.
“We knew he’d had a bad start but kept looking back to see him hauling his way back into the fleet,”| he said. “It’s incredible.”
By the last mark Spithill had now pulled up into third, just behind Outteridge and needed to get to second to win the fleet racing event. A sharp luff after the mark placed a penalty on Team Korea leaving Spithill to take second to Luna Rossa Piranha, (who nearly capsized on the finish line) and win the event.
Both finishes had seen plenty of drama and excitement for the crowds and stories for the TV, not least that of Olympic runner Michael Johnson who fell off the guest spot on the back of Coutts’ boat half way through the race.
Today was a key moment in the progression towards a new era of America’s Cup racing that, as it turned out, could not have been scripted better.
Fleet Racing Championship
1 – Oracle Team USA Spithill
2 – Luna Rossa Piranha
3 – Team Korea
4 – Energy Team
5 – Luna Rossa Swordfish
6 – Artemis Racing White
7 – Emirates Team New Zealand
8 – Oracle Team USA Coutts
9 – Artemis Racing Red
10 – J.P. Morgan BAR
11 – China Team
Match Racing Final
Oracle Team USA Coutts beat Oracle Team USA Spithill 1-0
Match Racing Championship
1. Oracle Team USA Coutts
2. Oracle Team USA Spithill
3. Artemis Racing White
4. Emirates Team New Zealand
5. Energy Team
6. Luna Rossa Piranha
7. Luna Rossa Swordfish
8. J.P. Morgan BAR
9. Team Korea
10. China Team
11. Artemis Racing Red