With BMW Oracle in the lead at the half way stage in Marseille, how big a blow has the loss of Coutts been to Alinghi, the event and Coutts himself?

 A decisive win by the Swiss in the opening match of the Louis Vuitton Act 1 in Marseille was a clear indication that the Cup winning team still has what it takes despite the loss of their top helmsman and the man who played such an important part in building Alinghi. But as BMW Oracle lead the first Act, is this an early sign that the Swiss are finding life difficult without their top helmsman?

Russell Coutts is out of Alinghi and out of the Cup, sacked by his boss and long time sailing partner Ernesto Bertarelli for ‘repeated violations of his duties’. The blow is all the more stunning given how personal the wranglings between the two men seem to have become. To add to Coutts’ problems it appears that Bertarelli has prevented the ex-Alinghi skipper from taking part in the next America’s Cup by forcing a change to the AC Protocol which now prohibits anyone who has been contracted to a team for a total of six months after 2 March 2003 from changing to another team in any capacity.

“As it stands today I will not be taking part in the next America’s Cup,” Coutts told Yachting World. “I was planning on doing the next one and obviously this is a big blow.”

At least that’s how the picture looked a few weeks ago when news of Coutts’ departure was first confirmed. Now, after a period of silence the other side of the story is starting to emerge as Bertarelli is quoted in the Swiss newspaper l’Hebdo.

“If I refrained from explaining myself until now, it is because I know from experience that it is very hard, under these circumstances, to win against a Russell Coutts,” he is quoted as saying. “I am cast in the role of the evil man, I am financing the team and because of my wealth, in the eyes of the public, I am the one with the upper hand.”

There’s no denying that the situation is an awkward one with the team, many of whom were both close to Coutts and to their boss cum sailing team member Bertarelli, have become trapped in the middle.

“They are both very powerful men. Russell is a celebrity and one of the faces of the America’s Cup, he’s like a modern day Dennis Conner,” said Alinghi’s general manager Grant Simmer

“It is a big blow and it’s tough on everybody in the team because a lot of us joined because we wanted to sail with Russell, he continued. “Within the team we were aware that there were problems, but it wasn’t until Newport that he announced to the team and to Ernesto that he wasn’t going to sail the boat.”

Since then the situation has degenerated to a point that Coutts finds himself outside not only the team he played such an important part in building, but outside the America’s Cup altogether. Clearly upset at the dismissal he believes that the change in the Protocol was at the request of Bertarelli and has implications for others as well.

“It’s a bad rule. It was aimed at me but has broader implications for others and will certainly increase the costs as people contracted will now require more money,” he said. “The change in the rule also indicates a person who is prepared to change the rules when he doesn’t get his way, and that’s not good for the sport either.”

While public disagreements are part of what makes the America’s Cup the theatre that it is, the nature of the personal comments is what has taken many by surprise. Asked during the Newport regatta about whether money was the problem Bertarelli was reported to have replied, “It’s not about money. I think as people have found out, he is a difficult guy to motivate. I’m not the first one facing this issue.” Presumably a comment directed at Coutts’ fall out with Team New Zealand after successfully defending the Cup for New Zealand in 2000.

Coutts himself is surprised at Bertarelli’s comments.

“It’s a strange quote,” he said. “No one else has questioned my motivation and while I can understand why some people may try to draw a link between what happened at TNZ and now at Alinghi, the issues are very different.

“Then the issue was about three guys trying to purchase the rights to Team New Zealand, in this one I’m the only one who’s disputing the contract.”

Yet in the Swiss newspaper interview Bertarelli is quoted as saying, “When he returned from his vacation in February, I began to realize that he was no longer committed to Alinghi. He came to my office and told me: ‘I am not motivated any more, I won the Cup three times, I have other projects, I would like to quit the team.’ He gave me his resignation, but I refused to accept it.”

Although there is no official confirmation, the dispute looks set to make its way into the courts, a bad thing for both the players and a scenario that the America’s Cup could well do without. From the K-boat affair to One World versus Sean Reeves, protracted legal affairs have rarely made the event or it’s characters look good.

But whatever the individual wranglings, most will be left wondering how such an impressive and successful team could have degenerated so quickly after a decisive and historic win. So how did things get to this stage?

“There were a lot of decisions that were made that I didn’t agree with but it was the way that some decisions were made that I disagreed with most,” he said. “I expected to be more informed.”

“Things changed dramatically after we won the Cup. We had a very successful formula and one of the best teams in America’s Cup history. I can’t really explain what went wrong.”

Here Coutts is not alone and while the theories abound as to what lies at the bottom of the issue, the fact remains that losing Coutts from the America’s Cup is as significant as Schumacher being sacked by Ferrari or Beckham being dismissed from England.

In the meantime, it is ex-Oracle helmsman Peter Holmberg who has filled Coutts’ slot aboard SUI-64 and understandably he was quick to dismiss the problems that have dogged the team over the last few months.

“We’ve got to move on,” he said when asked about the affair. “We’re all pretty smart cats and nothing has been said about the issue since we arrived here.”

If the team were to dominate the series and this first America’s Cup season in Europe, perhaps the issue will die down, but for many the early indications are that the repercussions will continue to be felt for some time yet and that it’s still difficult to imagine the Cup without Coutts.