Matthew Sheahan reports from the Moet Cup in San Francisco

On the eve of the final, the scores couldn’t have been better scripted. Three all for the pro-drivers and 2-1 to Oracle for the owner driver series. Everything to play for and the perfect excuse to draw in the crowds on a sunny Saturday on the Bay.

But what was this event really about? Opinion among some of the more seasoned spectators was divided as to whether the current Cup holders Alinghi were really playing as hard as they were at the beginning of the year during the finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup when they dismissed Oracle 5-1. Was the Moet Cup really a showdown between the world’s top two teams, or a showcase event for the next America’s Cup?

Russell Coutts, who had handed the skippers role over to his former sparring partner Jochen Schuemann was clear as to the reasons for being in San Francisco and pushing hard to win.

“If we’d lost every race in this series, questions would be asked about our previous performance during the Cup,” he said.

“This event is also important for us in evaluating new team members. We’re in the process of signing nine new sailing team members. When you’re locked into four year contracts it’s very important to get the decisions right.”

Some might say, a less than entirely convincing reason for shipping both the boat and a 50 strong team half way around the world. Taking an America’s Cup team on tour costs money, lots of it.

For Alinghi’s owner Ernesto Bertarelli, the event allowed him to get his hands on the wheel of SUI-64 for the first time in a racing situation.

“Owner driver racing certainly makes it easier to swallow the pill when you’re signing the cheques,” he said.

But at the same time he was quick to dispel the idea that this series, or indeed the future America’s Cup should be about a battle of the billionaires.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with the whole concept of becoming more famous,” he said. “America’s Cup racing is about the very best teams and the very best sailors in the very best boats. This is not about Larry versus me.”

“A team sport is as much about the locker room as it is about who’s coaching, who’s helming and who’s trimming.”

Another interesting view perhaps, but surely still not the best clue to the heart of the matter.

More likely is the role that both these teams will play in forging the future of the America’s Cup event as a whole. Big changes are afoot. The location, which has yet to be decided, is just one part of a list of changes that will mark a revolutionary change for the world’s oldest sporting trophy.

Racing just metres off the shoreline in San Francisco Bay was one way of showing the world how accessible America’s Cup racing could be. Many have talked about it but here on show was the evidence. And very impressive it was too.

Sitting in the lounge of the modest Golden Gate Yacht Club, the view as Alinghi and Oracle approached the shore was spectacular. There, on the outside two powerful machines heading straight for the windows. On the inside, five plasma screens above the windows showing the animated graphics in real time. Technology and the real thing separated by a thin pane of glass.

Outside thousands of people lined the sea wall with thousands more crammed onto everything from superyachts to kite surfers, chasing the fleet up and down the Bay.

It may be time to review the opinion that sailing can’t be a spectator sport. Every time Oracle gained an advantage the cheer that went up from the crowd made the event feel more like a football match than a yacht race.

But above all else, Alinghi are here because Larry Ellison, head of Oracle BMW Racing invited them. Under the guise of a re-match where old scores could be settled in a new event for a new cup, the racing provided a good opportunity to sell the new America’s Cup to a broader audience by leaking some of the future plans for the series.

In the November issue of Yachting World we’ll reveal what’s up with the Cup for next season and beyond – Don’t miss it.

So who won?

Oracle on both accounts, 4-3 in the pro-driver series and 3-2 in the owner driver series. Local boy Larry was the popular winner, but perhaps overall victory went to an event that has gone a long way to dispelling plenty of myths.

America’s Cup 2004 and beyond?

‘Bring it on’, as they say over here.