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America's Cup - Can Oracle Team USA stage another Comeback?

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World NZ on 19 Jun 2017
Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA bow to bow at the start - 35th America's Cup Match - Race 3 - Bermuda June 18, 2017 Richard Gladwell
After the first race in the 2010 America's Cup in Valencia, Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth when asked to comment at the media conference on Oracle Racing's 120ft trimaran's blistering performance, put it simply - 'That's Speed with a capital 'S'.

The same phrase seemed appropriate to describe Emirates Team New Zealand's performance over the first two days of the 35th America's Cup Match.

Oracle Team USA skipper, Jimmy Spithill echoed the same sentiments at the post race media conference.

'I think it is obvious that these guys are faster, and we need to make some serious changes.'

'Everything is on the table.'

Last week's winds at the top end of the scale were replaced with gentler breezes in the 9-13kts range today, and winds in the 7-11kts yesterday.

According to the brochure, these were the conditions to expect for the America's Cup Match and were the same predicted by a 50-year weather analysis conducted by Emirates Team New Zealand before pitching their AC50 Challenger.

So far Aotearoa New Zealand has delivered.

Leading around every mark in four races is more than even the most ardent Kiwi fan would have predicted. That's 24 marks - plus winning three out of four starts - with the other being called as even.

In both of their encounters in the Round Robin phase of the Qualifiers, Oracle Team USA had reasonably easy wins over the New Zealand Challenger who was clearly short of hard racing practice.

They got that in the Semi-Finals against Land Rover BAR, whose skipper Ben Ainslie is one of the toughest in the business, and certainly on the same level of aggression as Oracle Team USA's Jimmy Spithill.

Again in the Challenger Final, they came up against Artemis Racing's Nathan Outteridge, who had the best record in start-wins of any of the six teams. On the final day of the Challenger Finals, Emirates Team New Zealand checked in with a confidence-boosting two start wins over Artemis Racing.

The only question now remaining is whether Emirates Team New Zealand picked up enough race practice and boat speed to be able to better their nemesis of the 2013 America's Cup and the Qualifiers of the 2017 event?

After the first day of racing, the portents were encouraging, but the Kiwis turned in an error-riddled performance and were only saved by a big fat two-minute margin in the first race. After closing to within 3 seconds of the Kiwis, Oracle Team USA had a splashdown soon after starting the final leg of the second race. Burling and his crew waved goodbye and went on to put on almost 90 seconds on the defending Champion on the 1nm long final leg, before tuning for the finish line.

Today in Races 3 and 4 both crews didn't make any major errors and it was just a straight speed and boat positioning contest on the five-leg course.

The reduced number, but longer length legs probably worked the way of Peter Burling and the ETNZ crew - affording them luxury of being able to stretch their legs a little.

However, the Elephant in the Room is the Comeback that Oracle Team USA and Jimmy Spithill staged in 2013, pulling the Kiwis back after they were just one win away from and America's Cup win.

With a five-day break coming - to suit US TV schedules, Spithill said the time would be used to look at every aspect of the campaign to understand where the Kiwis had an advantage, and what Oracle Team USA could do to close the gap.

While the list is optimistically extensive, even in five days realistically the options are limited. The most obvious place to start is daggerboards, but under the Protocol, these can only be modified four times, and only 30% of the board can be altered, measured by weight.

The AC50 is a one design class in terms of basic hull shape, wing profile, weight and some other dimensions - unlike the AC72 where the design was more open, and there was more scope for change.

The ability is extremely limited for Oracle Team USA to push through a retrospective Protocol change can't happen. Being the only Challenger, Emirates Team New Zealand is now the Challenger of Record and has the effective right of veto over any Protocol change.

Getting an Interpretation changed (as was done with the lower shrouds being required to be under tension, then four days being allowed to be loose) is most unlikely.

Any improvements that Oracle Team USA can make will come from some hard and searching analysis, as was done in September 2013.

A big change then was in the introduction of Ben Ainslie into the afterguard replacing John Kostecki as tactician in the 11 man crew. That got Oracle Team USA back into the game tactically while the boffins worked on on the demon tweaking.

In the 2013 Comeback, the gains were achieved by reviewing performance data from the New Zealand boat, overhead video and other material.

To turn around their fortunes in an event they were set to lose. Oracle Team USA worked out how to make their boat consistently foil upwind which was the nuclear option to which Emirates Team New Zealand had no response.

There is no silver bullet to be had in the 2017 America's Cup - the AC50s foil upwind and down. Foiling gybes and tacks are the norm.

Any speed gain will come from the sum of small changes, rather than a single big change.

On the race course, Oracle Team USA will go through the available video footage, looking particularly at Burling's starting technique to see if there is a pattern - and if so how they counter it.

That is what happened in the tail-end of the 2013 America's Cup where Oracle Team USA's coaches came up with a counter to Dean Barker's game plan at the starts - with the Kiwis either being bested at the start or copping an umpire imposed penalty for their shortcomings.

But there is no time for steps sideways or back. Come next Saturday, there will be racing every day until the outcome is determined.

Of course, Emirates Team New Zealand will be bringing new developments online, and have the advantage of essentially sailing and trialling their boat in the computer knowing that there is a good co-relation with outcomes on the water.

Emirates Team New Zealand have conducted their last two America's Cup campaigns, using just a single boat and each time has come up with the benchmark boat for the series. So it is business as usual for the Kiwis.

Despite having won four races, Emirates Team New Zealand is sitting only 3-0 on the points table. It doesn't take too much for that lead to be wiped out with a couple of good races from Oracle Team USA - and 3-2 is a completely different looking scoreline from Spithill's perspective.

For those who have been watching this regatta on the water the difference in Emirates Team NZ's performance from the Round Robins to the Match is bewildering.

It is hard to believe that Oracle Team USA is sailing any slower than when they won the Qualifiers - beating Emirates Team New Zealand convincingly on their two encounters.

But now the difference is quite marked, and the Kiwis have an upwind speed advantage and can more than hold their own downwind.

But a five-day break is unprecedented in the America's Cup Match. It is more than enough for America's Cup Champions to regroup, and much to the chagrin of the Kiwi nation a comeback is more than possible.

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