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America's Cup Rialto: Feb 20 - Brits deliver a Finals race win

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 20 Feb 07:06 PST 21 February 2021
Luna Rossa dives at the start of Race 5 - Prada Cup Finals - Day 3 - February, 20, - America's Cup 36 - Course E © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

INEOS Team UK entered the Last Chance Saloon in the final race of the day - doing what they had to do - which was to lead Luna Rossa back to the startline for the first time in the Prada Cup Finals.

Ben Ainslie showed this afternoon that he can still deliver under extreme pressure. In fact, maybe it is the extreme pressure that makes him deliver.

What happened between the two races can only be guessed at, but judging by the body language aboard INEOS Team UK during and after the first race of the day, the afterguard looked like they had run out of ideas, and their self-confidence was shot.

This was real trench-warfare, and the Brits knew they had to go over the top one more time, but looked to be struggling to summon the fight and self-confidence for the task ahead.

Fail, and INEOS Team UK would go the way of the other British America's Cup Challengers, as the team would surely have exited the Prada Cup Final in the remaining race on Sunday.

Both teams stuffed the start of Race 5 - jumping the start, but with the Brits managing to bungle their start worse than the Italians.

The Brits were penalised by the umpires for what used to be known as barging at the start, but that sin is now covered by several rules - principally that a windward boat shall keep clear. Although they didn't have contact, the Brits infringed the virtual boundary, a two metre wide symmetrical polygon officially known as a "Keep Clear Border", that surrounds an AC75 for the protection of boat and crew.

Just to make sure the Brits had no wriggle room at the start, the Italians staged a nosedive, which is one of several novel ways of applying the handbrake in an AC75. However while it was not sufficient to keep Luna Rossa behind the line, it was the closest we have seen yet of the the feared wing and foil arm contact between two AC75's in a confined space. The Brits had to swerve sharply to avoid a very expensive contact.

Then came the penalty that seemed to have no end, as Ainslie and tactician Giles Scott tried to drop back the required distance of 50 metres on Luna Rossa to clear their infringement of Rule 11 of the Racing Rules.

It was a similar situation that Ainslie and Scott's compatriot, Iain Percy - also an Olympic Gold medalist - found himself in aboard Artemis Racing on the notorious Day 2 of the Challenger Semi-Finals in Bermuda. In in the middle of a rain squall and after repeated penalties or umpire instructions to slow down, Percy engaged in a memorable tirade with the Chief Umpire - as exactly what they were expected to do to get sufficiently far behind Dean Barker sailing Softbank Team Japan who had, apart from on the Umpire's screen, disappeared off into the murk of a Bermudian rain squall and was out of sight.

There were no such visibility problems on Course E today - but when you are 80 metres behind- haven't you served your 50 metre penalty, Ainslie asked?

Of course, Jimmy Spithill being the master of the match racing game that he is, feasted on Ainslie's plight, and employed some clever tactics to exacerbate the situation. As we have seen so often in this regatta when the lead boat gets a bit of a leg up, then it is game over - and Spithill and co-helm Francesco Bruni were able to build the 80 metre jump about halfway up the first windward leg into a whopping lead of over a 1,000 metres later in the race.

But to the Brits credit they gave themselves a collective uppercut between races, came back in with a change in approach, and led the Italian back to the start line for the first time in the Finals. Although the opening stanzas of the first beat were an arm wrestle, which most would have expected to go the Italian's way, the Brits dug in, and prevailed in the close combat. They returned the Italian's first race penalty stretching favour, by growing a small margin into a useful and defendable lead.

For the first time in the Finals and maybe 30 mark roundings, the Brits led around mark 31 and stayed in front for the remaining five.

Luna Rossa tried to close the gap, but the Brits got a good shift out of the left, or Maretai shore (which is always there for the finding), and that was enough for them to crank the lead up to 585 metres around Mark 4.

Statistically the British can take heart out of their win. Their average speed was 32.47kts compared to 31.3kts for Luna Rossa. They did 20 tacks/gybes compared to Luna Rossa's 17, and they sailed a whole seven metres more than Luna Rossa clocking up 26,358 metres sailed to 26,351. Simple logic tells you that more tacks and gybes, along with a similar distance should be slower - but that was not the case.

All regatta the Brits have told the media conferences that it was crew error that was costing them races. In the final race of the day they got the calls right, and got the result they had long been seeking.

Their fans will be hoping they have turned the corner.

We'll know the answer on Sunday.

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