Could this be the match of the America's Cup? Matthew Sheahan watches with interest

 BMW Oracle Racing versus Alinghi, Challenger of Record versus Cup holder, could this be a preview of the big show in 2007?

As the teams headed out of the Darsena this afternoon there was little doubt that the match between the Americans and the Swiss was the match of the day.

Who would win, how much would each be prepared to show and would we be able to see any tangible differences between a boat that was designed in 2002 and one that was launched only a matter of weeks ago and billed by the team’s skipper as the most innovative America’s Cup Class boat to have been built?

At the beginning of Act 10 Alinghi helmsman Ed Baird had said that they would be delighted if they could take a race off one of the new boats. Afterguard member Jordi Calafat had said that if the new boats didn’t beat them, then there was something wrong. On the other hand, BMW Oracle were clear that they would be working up their boat bit by bit during Act 10 and that it would take time to exploit the full potential from the new design.

As the match panned out it was clear that the differences between the two were very small indeed. At the start Ed Baird managed to squeak a half boat length advantage as the gun went, just enough to maintain control up the first beat by holding the Americans out to the left hand extreme of the course and banging the corner.

Alinghi’s tactics might have been a fraction better, but it was BMW Oracle’s boat handling and crew work that stood out throughout the race. For this to be visible against the frequently flawless Swiss team is a mark of both how good the USA team has become and how small the crucial differences are at the top.

BMW Oracle’s spinnaker hoists were better, but only by a split second, their gybes smoother, but only by a whisker and their bottom end mark roundings half a boat length slicker. To watch such an impressive display of handling aboard both was impressive but this was perhaps the first time we have been able to properly quantify the improvement in crew work that the team has been telling us has taken place. Perhaps it was the first time for them as well.

Yet, for all the improvement, Alinghi won the match by a slim 21 second margin.

Does it matter?

For Act 10 probably not, although it’s easy to see how seriously BMW Oracle are taking this regatta, but their clean score line has been broken and evened up the leader board to make for an exciting play off.

But when it comes to sizing up the competition, today’s race was one of only a few opportunities to line up against the boat that BMW Oracle hope to do battle with next year come the Cup match proper.

Serious stuff.