The biggest debate has been sparked by the most one-sided match. Matthew Sheahan reports from Auckland
Auckland was angry, Barker was furious and the rest of us were simply dumbfounded.
Take the headline of the sports section of the Sunday Star Times this morning, ‘Barker: Swiss Insulted NZ’.
“I’m really pissed off,” said the normally mellow, unflappable and softly spoken Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, referring to Alinghi’s refusal to compete with them yesterday.
“I’m disappointed, disgusted. We’re here for a sporting event. I don’t buy their reasoning. If they’d bothered to do the maths they could have figured out that even if they’d been deducted a point, which I’m sure they could have avoided, they could still be in the challenger final,” he said.
In defence of his team’s decision, Alinghi’s skipper Ed Baird had pointed to Team Origin’s experience on the previous day when the Brits were awarded a half point penalty for a controversial penalty.
“The event is serious about avoiding close incidents and if we are going to take a risk, it’s going to be in a race that counts,” he said. “The downside of points being taken away and no value to the points card from a win, made it too risky.”
Thousands of spectators had travelled to vantage points around the Waitemata Harbour, others had flocked out onto the water and many more had settled down in front of the television to watch the big match. For an event that has no bearing beyond the end of next week, the racing has captivated a huge audience. Perhaps it didn’t matter that one match wouldn’t take place?
But it clearly did. The Louis Vuitton Pacific Series has been an undeniable success in New Zealand and has attracted many of the world’s top press at a time when there is plenty of competition for sailing news and travel budgets are being slashed.
Alinghi has spent many months garnering support for its vision of the next America’s Cup, including the announcement of a new class rule. It has worked hard to make it clear how much it favours bringing this style of event to the public. Keeping the sport and the public on side appears to matter. So while the logic of sitting out a race may make sense in a major tournament, such a strategy seems heavy handed and self-defeating for this event.
From the evening TV highlights to the morning papers, the local media reflected the disappointment and frustration that was evident among the Kiwi public. During today’s daily TVNZ show, a sophisticated freeview broadcast, viewers were asked to comment on Alinghi’s decision. The station was flooded with emails and texts. Auckland cared.
Having said that, there were some who were in favour of Alinghi’s decision. If nothing else, such a public spat was just like old times in the Viaduct. Cup racing, be it for the Audl Mug itself, or a new variation on an established theme, is highly charged. Perhaps that’s what sparks such fierce debate.
But I have one additional question for today. Why is there no Alinghi branding on the mainsail or spinnaker? All the other competitors are emblazoned with their logos and sponsors. Seems strange, just like the decision not to race.
For those who simply wanted to watch the racing and ignore the politics, the first match between the two Italian teams, Peter Holmberg’s Luna Rossa and Vasco Vascotto’s Damiani Italia Challenge, the bulk of the action was at the two weather mark roundings, both of which saw Luna Rossa trail by 8 seconds. But by the finish, a dying and shifty breeze saw this margin extend to 1min 42sec in favour of Vascotto’s team.
When it came to Alinghi’s match against BMW Oracle, the clash of Baird versus Coutts didn’t disappoint.
Right from the pre-start, Alinghi gained the upper hand, capitalising on a shift in the breeze to the right and crossing to this favoured side of the start box. From there Baird kept Coutts at bay, refusing to let BMW Oracle in at the committee boat end.
A tacking duel developed up the first beat, Coutts taking a stab at his former team in a luff that was green flagged.
As the pair rounded the weather mark there was just 12 seconds between them. More aggressive sailing followed, but hitting the snakes rather than ladders on the downwind leg saw Alinghi lose out. But at the bottom gate, Coutts took the unfavoured buoy, restoring the gap to 12 seconds again.
Another head to head up the beat, another downwind dash with Coutts getting close once again to strike. But not close enough. By the bottom mark Baird had secured a well earned victory and crossed 26 seconds ahead.
Last up was Team Origin versus Emirates Team New Zealand, Ainslie versus Barker. Given the pair’s history as team mates in the team’s own boats, this was anticipated to be the most evenly match race of the series. And it was.
Both boats were neck and neck at the start, but Ainslie squeaked the narrowest of advantages just metres off the line and then proceeded to chisel out a bigger lead. Not that it ever got that comfortable as Barker and co. chased the Brits down at every opportunity, particularly downwind where the Kiwis demonstrated the subtleties of slick gybes to their opponents.
Although the lead never changed the racing was tight and action packed with the best of the drama kept for the end when Team Origin crossed the line just 7 seconds ahead.
A terrific match that sadly counted for nothing other than practice for the Brits. Under the scoring system in Round Robin 2, no one puts a point on the board for beating the Kiwis who proceed straight to the final.
“Although the points board appears to tell a different story this week compared to last, I think we’re sailing a whole lot better now,” said Mike Sanderson after the race.
Few would disagree. Questions of performance had been answered and the public went home with a day full of incident – of the right kind.
Damiani Italia Challenge (ITA) beat Luna Rossa (ITA)
Alinghi (SUI) beat BMW Oracle Racing (USA)
Team Origin (GBR) beat Emirates Team New Zealand (NZL)
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