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Prada Cup Final: Day 4 - Italy becomes the Challenger for the third time

by Ben Gladwell - Sail-World NZL 20 Feb 22:44 PST 21 February 2021
Luna Rossa crosses the finish line off Rangitoto Island to win the Prada Cup Final and become the Challenger for the 36th Match for the America's Cup © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli made history on the Hauraki Gulf this afternoon by being the first Challenger of Record, since 1970, to win a Challenger Selection Series and go on to Challenge for the America's Cup.

They have now earned the right to be the Challenger for the America's Cup, and the third time in just over 20 years that Italy has won this honour.

After their loss to INEOS Team UK yesterday, the Italians turned on a commanding performance to win both races, and become the first to record seven wins in the 13 race series, and win the Prada Cup.

Here's how the racing unfolded:

Race 7 - Not quite Match Point

For Ineos to continue in this regatta, they needed to win six out of the next seven races. At the start of today's racing weren’t on the wrong side of Match Point, but they weren’t far off. They needed to try something different because their game plan until this point was clearly not working out as planned. So try they did.

For the first time, we saw them dive deep into the start box, not looking to get anywhere near Luna Rossa, and line up for a time-on-distance from a long way out. Luna Rossa approached from the more typical position high on the right hand side of the box. It looked for a time like Luna Rossa could have chosen to either dive below Ineos and go for the hook or put the bow up and start with a lot of gauge to the right of the Brits, either outcome would have been a decisive win of the prestart. Spithill and Bruni decided to split the difference, running down the line with Ineos a little way and burning a lot of their gauge, starting slightly bow behind and only a boat length or so to windward.

Luna Rossa was in a precarious position. They would need to hang on to their height for grim death while Ineos did everything they could to squeeze up to the Italians’ line and cast their wind shadow across Luna Rossa’s bow. Luna Rossa held firm, hanging in all the way to the boundary. The two boats tacked in unison with Ineos coming out just to windward but behind Luna Rossa. Spithill and Bruni went straight into a high mode and squeezed up towards Ineos, forcing a tack and falling into a very weak position, trapped against the left hand boundary, while Luna Rossa retained the power of the right, ensuring that they would maintain their lead all the way to the first top mark.

The gravity of their situation was not lost on Ainslie, who was audibly despondent on race radio as they rounded the mark 250 metres behind. In contrast to yesterday’s racing, Ineos also seemed to be a little under-wicked - Ainslie asking the trimmers if they had any more power to give him from the rig. The first downwind was a bit of a procession, Luna Rossa happily slotting into their familiar mode of sailing the pressure rather than the other boat and extending their lead by 5 seconds out to being 21 seconds in front.

Ineos, searching for a split race course, went for the “J-K” tack-rounding, and Luna Rossa followed them out to the left hand side of the course. Perhaps dropping the last race provided a reminder to the Italian crew that they needed to keep the foot hard on the throat to close this series out. They buried their opponents on this leg, stretching out to a lead of more than 500m at the race’s half way mark. Luna Rossa’s VMG was always a knot, sometimes 2 or 3 knots, faster than Ainslie and crew. They would round the mark 1:07 adrift.

Unfortunately, there was only more of the same to come. By the end of the second lap, they had pulled back 5 seconds but at the top of the final beat they had drifted back to 1:45 behind and would stay there until the finish.

The Brits were now on their last chance to avoid exiting the regatta.

Race 8 - Luna Rossa penalised.

In a last bid to dominate Luna Rossa in the prestart, Ineos followed them closely out to the right-hand boundary. As they both gybed back, Ineos came a fraction too close to Luna Rossa and put themselves in a very precarious position; going slow and sitting to windward of Luna Rossa who had gone further into the box. Ineos was lucky not to have been penalized, the onboard footage from Luna Rossa made it look as though Spithill went for the luff and Ineos didn’t respond as required. Spithill clearly thought he had scored a penalty, hitting the protest button twice on the run back towards the line.

Both boats were well early for the start, Ineos so much so that they had to sail the length of the start line, tack at the pin and run back towards the committee boat end of the line before they could put the bow up and cross the line. Luna Rossa, seemingly desperate to score a penalty while on starboard, sailed very close-hauled - almost head-to-wind - straight at Ineos as they ran back towards the committee boat. The umpires deemed no foul and Luna Rossa, who by now were unable to avoid crossing the start line early, were themselves penalized.

The boats started split, with Ineos sailing to the right and Luna Rossa to the left. When they came back together in the centre of the course for the first cross, Luna Rossa was forced to dip behind and Ineos was in a strong position. At the next cross, Luna Rossa had slipped by. Ineos rounded the top mark 11 seconds in arrears but had engineered a split course and were heading for the breezier side of the course. Unfortunately for the British, it wasn’t enough and Luna Rossa sailed out to a 170m lead.

Over race radio, Ainslie could be heard to say “We are going to have to do something pretty special here guys.” Given that in all of the previous 7 races, they have been unable to sail themselves out of this situation, his comment was perhaps an understatement.

Ineos dropped 1 second on the first run, rounding out the first lap 12 seconds behind. Luna Rossa was keen to keep things close on the second upwind, sticking their opponent with a tight cover with every opportunity. Ineos, again sailing with their bigger jib on, was faced with a catch 22. They were bleeding metres at every tack, but needed to break away from Luna Rossa if they were going to get past. If they stuck in behind the Italians, they would lose ground in their wind shadow, if they got into a tacking duel, they would lose ground at each manoeuvre. When both boats had rounded the second top mark, Luna Rossa was 34 seconds in front.

By now it was fairly clear that the Italian syndicate, the challenger of record, would be the one to join Emirates Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup match.

For Ineos Team UK, it was death by a thousand cuts, they were losing ground in small chunks at each manoeuvre and on every leg. They essentially followed Luna Rossa on the second downwind and by the end of the lap they were 36 seconds behind.

Sailing upwind for the last time in this series, the gap between the boats was too great for any real engagement other than a loose cover from Luna Rossa. The delta between the boats as Ineos turned for home - in the figurative and literal sense - was out to 53 seconds.

Two months ago, no one - perhaps even including Ineos themselves - thought that Ineos would make it through the round-robin phase of the Prada Cup challenger series. So credit must be given to the team, who turned their campaign around in as stark a fashion as imaginable in just three weeks. But they were outgunned by a slick Italian outfit who became the first Challenger of Record to make it to the Match since 1970, and the first multi-challenger selection series when Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron sailed a challenger selection series against the French entry by Baron Bich. With Gretel II, RSYS went on to contest the America's Cup, losing to Intrepid skippered by Bill Ficker.

The Challenger Selection Series was notable for Baron Bich getting lost in the Newport fog, while the Match is remembered for the controversial start line incident between Gretel II and Intrepid, in Race 2 which was resolved by the Race Committee of the New York YC, who disqualified Gretel II awarding the race to Intrepid.

The America's Cup veteran, perhaps the best known of the 12 Metre era, went on to successfully defend the Cup for the second time for the New York Yacht Club.

Since then the initial Challenger of Record, has never won through to the America's Cup Match - until Luna Rossa on February 21, 2021.

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