The America’s Cup will not only see holders New Zealand battle Italian challengers Prada for one of the oldest trophies in sport but also determine who has the latest and best in a multi-million dollar technology race.

Millions of dollars have been spent on designing and building better yachts since Team New Zealand won the America’s Cup off San Diego in 1995. It will all come to a head when the first race starts tomorrow on the Hauraki Gulf.

Eleven challengers from seven nations started out in the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series last October, each with an average budget of about $US20 million (about $NZ41). Prada, which threw anywhere between $US50 million and $US100 million into their challenge, emerged as the best boat and will take on New Zealand in the America’s Cup match.

Blake’s syndicate has invested $US20 million in their defence after they won in 1995 to become only the second country after Australia in 1983 to take the Cup away from the Americans. Much of each syndicate’s budget has been invested in the technology race, with teams of experts focusing on the design and construction of hulls, rigs, the sails which hang off those rigs and even on methods of measuring the performance of the boats. The intensity of the hi-tech battle means that competitors will look for technology that gives them even the tiniest of advantages in speed and strength.

While the International America’s Cup Class yachts must meet minimum and maximum limits for length, sail area and weight, designers look for crucial advantages in such areas as sail composition and the design and shape of hulls, bows and keels. Yacht designers have spent thousands of hours studying computer simulations of hull designs, putting models in test tanks and rigs in wind tunnels in a bid to produce the best boat.

With so many small differences between the boats, New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts believes it will be hard to know which is the fastest boat. “Even after one or two days of racing we probably still won’t know because the performance might vary in the different conditions,” Coutts said. “We’ll probably know at the end of the regatta — maybe.”

The consensus among observers after the challengers’ series and watching New Zealand in practice is that the two boats are evenly matched for speed. “What you have got to realise is that we test boats for hours on end out here, trying to test small differences, and often can’t come up with a solution,” Coutts said. “So if there is a big difference in the boats we’ll know, but if there is a small difference in the boats it could take quite some time to establish.”

Most of the research in recent years has gone into development of the rigs which hold up the sails and of the keel and rudders which hang below the hulls. Team New Zealand’s design team headed by Tom Schnackenberg have come up with a deeper keel with a flattened lead torpedo-shaped bulb on the bottom and narrow winglets off the side to provide stability.

Prada’s design team led by German Frers and Doug Peterson have gone for a slightly shorter keel with a bigger bulb at the bottom with sloping winglets off the back. The Italian boat also has a longer and thinner rudder while New Zealand’s black-hulled boat has a more raked bow. The America’s Cup is not only a race to improve technology but also to control it.

Prada has purchased a whole year’s supply of a particular kind of high-tech sail cloth used to make spinnakers, effectively shutting ccompetitors out of the market. The cloth was first produced for Bill Koch’s successful 1992 US defender America Cubed and has become known as “cuban fibre”. It is made of an ultra-strong artificial fabric known as Spectra with a quarter of a millimetre of Mylar laminate over it. Each sail costs about $US60,000.

The cloth gave Prada a clear edge in reliability and strength during the challenger series but their decision to buy all of the 1999 production run angered o