“Bravo Francesco” rang out around a packed Viaduct Basin here today as Italian yachting syndicate Prada beat AmericaOne to earn the right to challenge Team New Zealand for the America’s Cup.

Luna Rossa skipper Francesco de Angelis and his crew held their nerve in the decisive ninth race of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger finals series to win by 49 seconds over Paul Cayard’s challenge from San Francisco. The Italians qualified for the America’s Cup against Team New Zealand starting on February 19 by winning the challenger finals 5-4.

An Italian team will now challenge for the cup for the second time in eight years, while for the first time in the event’s 149-year history there will be no United States boat in the race. The Italian celebrations were witnessed by tens of thousands of New Zealanders, who flocked to the renovated basin and on to the Hauraki Gulf itself to send off the two race boats and then welcome them back.

A jubilant de Angelis said it would not be a bad thing that New Zealand and Italy would battle for the cup, without the Americans. “From one point of view it’s sad, but on the other side it means something is changing in the sailing world which I think is good for the sport. “The more this sport is spread around the better it is.” A devastated Cayard was gracious in defeat, saying his long-time friend de Angelis was a great sailor and he wished him well in the finals.

Ironically, it was Cayard who skippered Italy’s last America’s Cup challenger, Il Moro di Venezia, which lost to America3 in 1992. Cayard attributed Prada’s win to their $120 million campaign, which set them up for a three-year campaign and saw them training on the Hauraki Gulf over two summers before the Louis Vuitton Cup started.

But Team New Zealand syndicate head Sir Peter Blake said money had nothing to do with it. He said the syndicates whose strategy was to spend a long time in Auckland had performed better than the others. “Prada were here before anybody. Long, long hours on the Hauraki Gulf, it does make a difference. “Money does come into it, but not in the way some people think. You’ve really got to format your team to spend the amount of time necessary on the race waters. “Team New Zealand have spent four years there, you’d better be pretty close to four years there or you’ll be starting on the back foot.”

Both AmericaOne and Young America, the New York Yacht Club’s well-funded challenge which failed to even make the challenger semifinals, paid the price for spending too little time on the gulf. AmericaOne launched their race boat USA61 only last November. The boat’s inability to stand up to strong winds on the gulf cost Cayard one race in the best-of-nine challenger finals, while the helmsman’s own tendency for scrapping cost AmericaOne three penalties — and three more races.

In contrast, the Italians stayed clear of penalty trouble and refused to be bothered by Cayard’s predictions they would crumble under pressure.

In the light, 11 knot starting winds of today’s race, Luna Rossa clearly had an edge in speed over AmericaOne, which allowed the Italians to outsprint their rivals on the first beat. But even after the win, de Angelis was reluctant to say his boat was faster, saying simply “sure, we weren’t slower”. “But I think the fact we went up to the ninth race means that the boats were pretty close.”

Tactician Torben Grael said the key ingredient for Prada to come back from 3-4 down in the finals was self belief. “The key I think was to keep our belief in what we were doing. Things were going wrong, but we weren’t doing anything big wrong, it was just not falling our way.

“We just had to be patient and wait for our time. “We have shown from the beginning when we won some close races with AmericaOne and Young America that the team were tough on the close races. “All the team are very happy, and very satisfied at achieving what we have achieved so far. But we know we still