Ben Ainslie is Finn European Champion for the fourth time and hot favourite for the Olympics - but it wasn't an easy victory. Still if anybody is good in a scrap it's Ainslie
After the Athens Olympics four years ago, it’s unlikely that French Finn sailor Guillaume Florent got a Christmas card from Ben Ainslie. Florent protested Ainslie in Race 1 of the Olympic Regatta, claiming the British sailor had passed too close on port tack, with Florent claiming rights on starboard.
Ainslie was disqualified, leaving his back against the wall for the rest of the regatta, although history records that he still won the Gold medal with a race to spare. TV footage of the incident would later show that there was substantial daylight between the two boats, so you can understand why Ainslie was ever so slightly miffed about the protest.
Florent has never been one of the shining stars of the Finn fleet, although a few weeks ago in May he found himself leading the European Championships in Maremma, Italy. The Frenchman had been consistent throughout a difficult week when even the usually unstoppable Ainslie found himself struggling. Having won the first race at a canter, the reigning World Champion had a difficult couple of days before bouncing back with two victories in Races 6 and 7, only to be disqualified in a protest over a pre-start incident. It had been a trying week for Ainslie.
Going into the Medal Race, Florent was leading Ainslie by 8 points. With the double-points scoring system that governs the final Medal Race, the Briton would have to put four boats between him and his rival, quite a tall order in a ten-boat fleet. Who can forget the match race that Ainslie instigated against Robert Scheidt in their showdown for the Laser Gold medal in Sydney? The situation on that occasion, however, was that Ainslie could afford to retire from the race, having dragged the Brazilian behind the fleet at the start.
The difference in Italy was that Ainslie still needed to finish well up in the fleet, as the Medal Race is a must-count conclusion to the regatta. The 31-year-old had it all to do in the pre-start. From the warning signal, Ainslie hunted Florent into the left-hand corner of the start box and inflicted a penalty on the Frenchman, although incurred one of his own too.
“The wind came in very quickly and so did the start,” said Ainslie. “From the get-go my plan was to give Guillaume (Florent) a hard time in the pre-start as I needed to get a few points on him. We had a few incidents where I was on starboard and he on port, but the Jury decided to give me a penalty anyhow. At the end it worked out fine because it distracted him and I was able to start in the middle of the line with good speed.”
Ainslie kept an eye on Florent, but in the later stages of the race put the hammer down to win the 30-minute race by more than a minute. Florent’s 8th place relegated him to Bronze.
Having bagged the ‘big three’ over the past year – the Olympic Test Regatta, the Worlds and the Europeans – Ben Ainslie goes into the Olympics as the hottest possible favourite. However, none of these recent victories have come easy and every time he has had to fight to secure Gold. Bearing in mind the predicted vagaries of Qingdao, we can expect to find Ainslie in the thick of yet another dramatic scrap. But if it is a battle to the death, no one responds better to the pressure than Ainslie.