The 2014 Alpari World Match Racing Tour gets underway in just under a month and all eyes are on the eight Tour Card skippers for the 2014 season as they prepare to meet at the first event in Germany on 5 June. One of the Tour’s longest competing skippers is French match racer Mathieu Richard who returns to the Tour this year with a new sponsor and a very clear mission - to win the World Championship.
Being the only Frenchman among the top eight, Mathieu Richard rejoins the Alpari World Match Racing Tour as a Tour Card holder this year for the first time since 2011. Of the ‘magnificent eight’, he now holds the distinction of being the longest serving, it being a decade since he first competed on the Tour, even though his participation over this period has been intermittent.
So why does he keep coming back? 'Firstly it is exciting to match race at the top level on this circuit and I love match racing,' says the 38 year old Frenchman, who heralds from Pornichet on France’s Atlantic coast. 'The Tour is very interesting with a lot of events around the world.'
However there is also one overriding factor: 'Twice we have finished second on the Tour and once third. So I still want to win this World Title. Hopefully this will be our year!'
Richard is originally a dinghy sailor and today is equally at home fleet racing, but match racing still provides the highest test for him. 'Match racing is the school of small details. You have to be very, very at the top at everything on board, because if you make a small mistake it can cost you the match. It really is a team sport - you have to go fast, so the trimming skills are very important; you have to go on the right side, so the tactics skills are important; you have to manoeuvre perfectly. So match racing is very complete. When you are a top match racer, it is easier to be good at the fleet racing than the opposite way around.'
While he is the longest serving of the present crop of Tour Card holders, Richard admits that this year he feels a little like the new boy. There is the Tour’s latest event, Sopot Match Race, in Poland, where he’s never sailed before, and even the more familiar Chicago Match Cup will also be new to him. 'I think all of the other teams have raced at that event, so it is not such an advantage to be a veteran this year.'
Generally Richard agrees that longevity on the Tour is an advantage as you get to know both the venues and the different types of boats being used at each event.
While he’s spent 10 years on the Alpari World Match Racing Tour, in fact he has been racing some of his adversaries for far longer, in particular his old foe, GAC Pindar skipper Ian Williams, with whom he first lined up at a youth match racing event in 1998.
'I think we won that,' Richard recalls. 'Since then we have improved together and in the first five or six years I think we were definitely better than him, until his first title in 2007. Even then it was very close - we were leading before Malaysia and he managed to beat us to win the title. From that time I have to say that he has been stronger than me probably. So this year we have to be better than him.'
This year Richard returns with a new sponsor, LunaJets, a Swiss private jet charter company. 'It is very exciting for them to get into sailing, because they are quite a new business. They started in 2007 and they have developed a lot over the last three or four years. So if you need a private flight you need to call them or go on their website and they will help you on that.'
For 2014, Richard is keeping the same crew line-up as 2013, many of whom in fact have been sailing with him for years. Main trimmer Greg Evrard has been with him since 1997, while pitman Olivier Herledant has served around 12 years. Elsewhere on board Thierry Briend or Star Olympic medallist Pascal Rambeau will be trimming the headsail, while François Verdier handles the bow.
Winning the Alpari World Match Racing Tour this season will be no easy feat, particularly with the return of Francesco Bruni and his Luna Rossa crew – runner up in 2011 – Richard feels. 'We know very well Bruni and Prada. It is great for the Tour to have an America’s Cup team and he is a very good match racing skipper and team. He obviously has a very strong team and is improving all the time. He will definitely be one of the favourites this year alongside Canfield and Williams.'
New Tour Card holder David Gilmour is less known. 'We saw him a couple of times last year. He is still young, but already good, and could be a surprise this year. In the past we have seen some young teams win the Tour like Minoprio or Canfield last year.'
In the meantime, reigning champion Taylor Canfield represents the benchmark. 'Taylor is very impressive,' admits Richard. 'Since the end of 2012, he’s been winning a lot of events. He was very strong last year, keeping the lead until the Monsoon Cup and then winning the Tour. And this year’s he’s already won Congressional Cup where the best teams were competing. He’s very strong.'
Fortunately assisting the LunaJets team in Germany and Sweden will be their high profile coach, Bertrand Pace, winner of the first World Match Racing Tour back in 2000, who will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of his ISAF Match Racing World Championship win this year.
Hopefully some of the Pace magic will wear off. 'It is very interesting to work with Bertrand because he knows everything about the game, technically, tactically, trimming, he has a very good eye. He is also the only Frenchman who has been an ISAF Match Racing World Champion.'
The 2014 championship gets underway at Match Race Germany on 5 June. The Alpari World Match Racing Tour is one of five special events sanctioned under the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) including America's Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, the Extreme Sailing Series and the PWA World Tour. WMRT website