Team Principal Sir Keith Mills explains to Matthew Sheahan the reasons behind the withdrawal of plans for the next America’s Cup
“The only reason I put the team together at the start was to have a chance of winning and I think the odds are staked very heavily against any challenger. More heavily than they have been for some time in the America’s Cup.”
Yesterday’s (Friday 1 October) late news spelled the end of another British America’s Cup campaign, this time before a boat had even been built. Despite pulling together a talented team in which long term America’s Cup involvement was combined with long term Olympic talent, team principal Sir Keith Mills announced that TeamOrigin would not be competing in the next America’s Cup.
Following the recent public release of the Protocol governing the 34th America’s Cup, the new rules state that the event will be raced in 72ft LOA wing masted catamarans in 2013. Among the details, these are the two issues that have caused Challengers most concern, but as yet, none of the high profile teams have publicly declared that they will not participate.
Shortly after the announcement I spoke to Keith Mills about his reasons for pulling the pin after three long, hard and expensive years.
“At the end of the day I had to take the decision on whether I thought the Challenge was viable. Because of the timetable, I had to make that decision very quickly because if we were going to have a chance, we had to start designing our boat right now. We have spent the last 3-4 weeks since getting the Protocol talking to other potential Challengers and the Defender, talking to designers, commercial partners as well as trawling through the details and looking at the racing format. It really wasn’t one issue that was the problem, it was a combination of issues that caused real concern when you lined them all up.
“I didn’t like the class rule, I think that it has some serious issues with it. For instance, I don’t know how you race something like that in 33 knots of wind. When we asked Oracle about that they really didn’t have an answer. I don’t know how you moor it up, or stick it on the dock and they don’t have answers for that either.
“So I had real concerns about the boat as well as the fact that there are very few sailors around the world that have sailed such boats and very few designers that have designed 40m wings. From our starting point the class has real viability question marks over it.
“Having looked at the 2013 timetable and planned it in enormous detail, we concluded that there really is no time at all to design two multihulls and learn how to race them. It’s OK if you’re Oracle and two months ahead, but if you’re a mere mortal, that’s a big challenge.
“When you look at the commercial aspects, the costs are around 20 percent more than those of AC32 in Valencia, but the cycle is over three years and not four. The result is that you have to raise 20 percent more money in 25 percent less time. In effect you only have two years of commercial rights to sell.
“Then, looking at the Protocol there are lots of question marks in the rules. In addition, the governance of the event means that it will be owned, run and controlled by Oracle. So when I added it all up with Charles Dunstone [team partner] we concluded that the event wasn’t viable for us. More importantly we concluded that it just wasn’t winnable either. The only reason I put the team together at the start was to have a chance of winning and I think the odds are staked very heavily against any challenger. More heavily than they have been for some time in the America’s Cup.
“I went to Paris last week and had a meeting with Russell [Coutts BMW Oracle Racing CEO] and Iain Murray [Regatta Director] and some other members of the team to talk about their plans. They have a vision for the America’s Cup but I don’t think it’s going to work. They clearly do and I wish them luck and hope they pull it off. But from where I’m sitting I don’t think it’s viable.”
For those that have followed the recent dialogue between Mills’ British campaign and the current Cup holders, there have been several indications that the British entrepreneur was having doubts about whether his campaign would be possible. Was this the case?
“I’ve been raising concerns with Russell for some time about the class rules, Protocol and the timetable and we tried to head them off and persuade them that the route they were going was not one we could support,” he continued.
“The designers that were invited by BMW Oracle in May to discuss the future of the class concluded that it you wanted a lot of good teams with close racing then modern fast monohulls were the way to go. There are a lot of very good sailors and designers that could produce a very good competition. We’ve got now a competition where very few sailors have sailed it, very few designers have designed one and the cost in producing it is prohibitive.”
So what is the mood among the other potential challengers?
“If they’ve done their analysis as thoroughly as we have I’d be surprised if they come to any different conclusions, but of course that’s for them to decide. Looking at the F1 grid there are always teams at the back that don’t have a chance of winning but will turn up at every event and perhaps there will be enough teams like that to make the Cup interesting, but it’s not for me.”
The new Cup schedule which put big demands on teams in 2012 clearly clashed with three of his core team members, skipper Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy and Andrew [Bart] Simpson among others. How much of a concern was this and could the team have been re-structured to allow them to compete in both the Cup and the Olympics?
“I built the team around Ben, Iain and Andrew, I think they are three outstanding sailors. Ben will, I’m sure, one day win the America’s Cup. They were all up for learning how to race 72ft catamarans, but I wouldn’t have gone out and recruited a French multihull specialist to bring to the team, that was never in my thinking.
“The decision on what an athlete does in any sport is the athlete’s. I wouldn’t advise what Ben and Iain do within their own sport. What crossed my mind though was that if we had decided to go and 6-9 months down the track the America’s Cup show falls over, and I think it might, then Ben and Iain’s chances of competing in the Olympics would have gone. Then I would have felt very bad indeed.
At least he [Ben] has an easier decision to make now. I don’t know whether he’ll go for the Olympics or sail for another America’s Cup team, but I’ll be very supportive of him whichever way he goes.”
When it comes down to results, this season has been a frustrating and disappointing one for TeamOrigin, did this influence his decision to pull out?
“This was a year of trying out different team members in different competitions. Unfortunately we had a slow TP52 which we designed and built very quickly and that didn’t help our performance in the TP52 season. But this was a warm up year to help to get the team to work together. The performances weren’t the issue.”
So what of the future? Can anything be salvaged from the team?
“I’d like to get some fun from sailing. One of the things that Charles and I were discussing the other day when we were making this decision was, has this been fun for the last three years and would it be fun for the next three? Sadly, the truth was that it hadn’t and probably won’t be fun. If I’m going to do some sailing with TeamOrigin next year, then the focus will be in having some fun in other competitions. Whether it is joining in with the TP52s, doing some Extreme 40 racing or racing under IRC I’m not sure yet.”
So has he been put off Cup for good?
“No, I’d never say never, but I’m extremely frustrated to have reached this position. Throughout three and a half years of frustration through the law suit I stuck in there, kept the team together and kept spending money because I was determined to make it work. But there comes a time in sport and in business where you need to sit back and take a long look at what’s being served up. If it’s not working then you have to take the decision. I’ve had to do it in business a few times and now I’ve had to do it in an America’s Cup team.”