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America's Cup Rialto: Feb 25 - Design development vs race sharpness will decide the Cup

by Richard Gladwell, 25 Feb 00:56 PST 25 February 2021
Emirates Team New Zealand- start training - Prada Cup Finals - Day 4 - February 21, 2021- America's Cup 36 - Course A © Richard Gladwell /

For the Challengers, the game of Development Leapfrog ended on the Hauraki Gulf on Sunday, with Italy's Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli winning the second race of the day and earning the right to Challenge for the 36th America's Cup, starting on March 6.

That result set the scene for the 36th Match which as tradition dictates the Defender will come against the Challenger for first time.

When they last met in the America's Cup World Series, Emirates Team New Zealand had only been sailing their race boat Te Rehutai for three weeks and were still debugging systems in the ACWS. Luna Rossa had launched a month earlier. Both are now quite different boats from their mid-December encounter.

The course for Sunday overlapped the 2000 America's Cup course, on which then first-time Challenger Luna Rossa sailed probably the hardest ever Challenger Selection Series, for the Louis Vuitton Cup, against US Challenger America One (St Francis Yacht Club). As well as the close quarters racing between the US and Italian teams, the event is notable for the number of lime green spinnakers shredded by the US challenger.

Eleven teams from seven countries contested that event. The helmsman of the lowest placed team in the regatta, Young Australia, was Jimmy Spithill, who 21 years later was co-helmsman aboard Luna Rossa in the just concluded Final. In another historical coincidence, the boat that Spithill sailed in the regatta was the ex AustraliaOne from the 1995 Cup, owned by 2021 Regatta Director Iain Murray, and chartered to top Australian yachtsman Syd Fischer, who'd made an entry for the 2000 Cup.

Regardless of whose version of history you believe, Fischer had many motives for the Challenge. But he did set in place one of the great America's Cup careers with Jimmy Spithill now set to compete in his fourth successive America's Cup, winning two, losing one and with one outcome yet to be determined.

In contrast to 2000, just three Challengers from three countries competed two decades later in Auckland. While numbers were down, the competition was not, with American Magic emerging as the top Challenger in the America's Cup World Series in mid-December. The team representing the New York Yacht Club was the only team to beat the defending champion Emirates Team New Zealand.

American Magic's promising campaign came to an end after a series of freak weather circumstances came unexpectedly together, and the US team spun out, rounding the final mark of Race 6 of the Round Robin, holing the boat, and coming within a few minutes of sinking. Despite a brave recovery, the team were always going to be out of time, a situation exacerbated by having her first return racing in the Semi-Finals staged in breezes close to the upper wind limit. She was dispatched 4-0 in an untroubled manner by Luna Rossa.

INEOS Team UK staged a stunning turnaround inside a month. They went from being well off the pace in the America's Cup World Series to be the first and only boat to win five races (four race-win and one sail-over). The Brits progressed straight through to the Finals of the Prada Cup. Skipper Ben Ainslie later described their 80-second first win in the Round Robins against then form boat American Magic as his most memorable race of the Prada Cup regatta. They went through that series unbeaten.

Luna Rossa became the third challenger to win a Prada Cup round with their 4-0 result over American Magic. Their AC75 Patriot was fresh out of resuscitation and in the circumstances and was always going to be susceptible to gremlins in their new systems, and that proved to be the case. The Italians progressed through to the Challenger Final, with the most racing experience of the three.

The Italians gave their boat a birthday, with a new mast, new sails, new wings, plus a significant software upgrade that appeared to make the boat a lot easier to fly and control. New cowls were fitted, which part-covered the crew, and tidied up the airflow. Reducing parasitic drag always seems to pay a disproportionate dividend in the AC75 - and the Italians appeared to be a better boat for the change.

Luna Rossa appeared to have much the cleaner rig and was probably the more powerful. Along with Emirates Team NZ, Luna Rossa has no main boom. Instead, they both have a floating clew on the mainsail, adjusted by a hydraulic ram connected to the traveller.

Their concept for sealing the mainsail to the deck was certainly a lot cleaner than on the British boat. The Brits' setup looked smooth when the boat was at rest when the mainsail and skirt could just hang.

But loaded up and in the strong (40kts plus) apparent wind, the flexible skirt formed up around the boom and didn't look to be as efficient as it could be. Given the effort to reduce drag and improve efficiency generally on the AC75's, it was surprising that the Brits did not follow the Kiwis and Italians' lead.

As has happened so often in this America's Cup cycle, the dead hand of COVID19 came into play. The three-day Alert Level 3 lockdown in Auckland stopped the Finals, which only restarted on the condition that the Stadium Courses B & C were not used. That decision probably disadvantaged the British.

Course A was used for the first and fourth day of the Finals. The sea breeze was reasonably consistent, and there were no passing lanes after the start and first cross.

Course E was the better of the two, but there were no lead changes on the four races sailed. The best race of the Final series was Race 6 on Course E, which the British won. Although they were never headed, the margin of separation concertinaed. The Prada Cup Final was also the only series in the Regatta in which one boat didn't win all races sailed.

For the Cup, expect more follow-the-leader racing if Course A is used, and the same for Course E.

Course C is more like a golf-course with bunkers and rough as well as the fairways. It provides a better test of sailing ability, as well as boatspeed.

The most exciting race of the Prada Cup was what proved to be the final contested race of the Round Robin, sailed on Course C or the Stadium course had eight or nine lead changes according to Virtual Eye.

INEOS Team UK led for the first round, with Luna Rossa leading for the second round, with the Brits taking back the lead at the final mark, by just 1 second, and holding on to win by 33secs after a controversial intersection decision by the course umpires just short of the finish.

In the Prada Cup, the boat that won the first or second cross went on to win its race in all races.

The issue with Course C is the presence of soft spots in the breeze. Hitting one can be catastrophic, and to even up the ledger, there are areas of stronger pressure created by the land influences. Keeping a boat in the groove and sailing fast is a big part of the Course C test.

Looking to the upcoming America's Cup Match, Emirates Team New Zealand should have an advantage in that their boat looks to sit in a very steady groove for long periods, more so than Luna Rossa.

The Kiwis other advantage is that Peter Burling and Blair Tuke have done a lot of 49er training in the area. The NZL Sailing Team is based at Orakei, adjacent to Course C. The Olympic Gold and Silver medalists won their sixth 49er World Championship sailing on what is now Course B, C and D. The nuances of this area should be well known to them. That level of local knowledge never really came into play for any of the Challenger teams in the Prada Cup.

If the racing is moved out onto Course A, off Takapuna, and to a lesser extent on the near landlocked Course E, a lot of the Kiwi's home town advantage will be wiped out.

Luna Rossa was a big beneficiary of dropping the Stadium Courses for COVID-related reasons.

Boatspeed was at a premium on courses A and E, and Ben Ainslie could often be heard commenting that he was unable to match the Italian Challenger's pace.

The final race of the Round Robins, raced on Course C, was won by the British, despite sailing with a disabled cunningham or mainsail luff control. The hydraulic ram exerted 7-8,000 kgs of downward pressure on the rig and was locked in place at about 70% of pressure for the whole race. Clearly, Ainslie and tactician Giles Scott's ability to quickly work wind shifts and pressure offset the advantage of having a critical AC75 rig control locked off.

The other point of difference between the teams is whether it is better to have two co-helmsmen as with Luna Rossa, or a single helmsman as with American Magic, INEOS Team UK and Emirates Team New Zealand.

Listening to the onboard conversation aboard Luna Rossa, there is a very relaxed, uncomplicated communication flow that works well on Courses A and E.

The style is very similar to a conversation between two umpires calling a race between them, where one tells the other what he/she is seeing, what rules apply and who is the give-way boat.

On Luna Rossa, one calls the shifts and pressure changes he is seeing, and the other confirms. Either co-helmsman can lead the conversation - with a short response of "copy" if the other concurs. Its all very cordial, with no sharp exchanges, there are not too many wasted words, or chit-chat. It's a conversation that is easy to tune into and facilitates concentration which in turn facilitates accurate decision making.

As with the umpiring technique, the two co-helmsmen know well in advance if they both see the same wind pattern. If not, they can sort out the issues and strategies in advance of a tack or gybe.

The occasions when there are differences are rare, and it's more an easy conversation with both having the same mental picture or visualisation of the issues and strategy.

It will be interesting to see how that will be offset against Emirates Team New Zealand and Peter Burling and Blair Tuke's combined talents, who are in a league of their own in world sailing.

They have been sailing together in one of the most difficult Olympic classes for 12 years. Both sail on instinct - an essential quality on the 49er.

Add to that the experience of mainsail trimmer Glenn Ashby, a professional sailmaker who is also an Olympic medalist and multiple world champion in the high-performance A-class foiling catamarans. There is a wealth of knowledge and combination in the back end of the Defender.

Luna Rossa will talk up the merits of two co-helmsmen in the current Cup. But the media got fed similar lines by Jimmy Spithill at the end of the Qualifiers in Bermuda, opining that ETNZ needed to change their afterguard around, so they had a specialist tactician, like Oracle Racing. Then in the lead up to the Cup, how well the "hybrid" cyclist and tactician Tom Slingsby was working out.

The Kiwis have picked a style that works for them, rather than one which aligns with whatever is in vogue with their competitor in the Match.

One point that some have been a little slow to pick up on is that of extracting the maximum possible power from the mainsail. "The Engine Above" as North Sails like to call it, has never been more important in the America's Cup - particularly at the lower extreme of the wind range for the AC75 - where it is vital to get the power required for foiling in windspeeds under the prestart minimum of 6.5kts. The consequences of falling off the foils are race, and maybe series, deciding.

At the top of the range where "batwing" mainsails and other solutions are appearing, to cope with apparent wind strengths of up to 60kts apparent.

Interestingly the two teams that have opted for boomless mainsails are the two that are going to battle for the America's Cup.

Too short

The most disappointing aspect of the Prada Cup was its duration.

While the results might not have changed - given that one boat won all the races in each series - aside from INEOS Team UK's single win in the Finals, the series was sudden death. A boat that suffered damage was always going to struggle to get back racing.

The previous Louis Vuitton Cups in 2000 and 2003 extended over three months, with a couple of weeks off between each Round Robin, giving plenty of time for a competitor to make development changes or effect repairs.

American Magic only just made it back into the competition, given that their repairs took most of the 11 days between Round Robin 2 and the Semi-Finals when she skipped Round Robins 3 & 4 after capsizing in the last race of Round Robin 2.

The short duration series doesn't give a lot of TV exposure for campaigns estimated to cost USD$100million each - when the first boat to be eliminated after the Semi-Finals got just six days of TV exposure in the shortened program. The reduced duration Round Robin because of the American Magic withdrawal and "Ghost Races" only cost two days. On the full calendar, the first Challenger to exit the Prada Cup still only received eight days of TV time.

Maybe it is no surprise that Luna Rossa won the Finals, given that the Italian team best managed their navigation of a tight racing calendar. They got their first boat's design right and continued in the same genre with their second AC75.

The Brits had significant speed issues with their race boat in the ACWS but managed to get changes effected in the four weeks over Christmas. Britannia may have improved her performance down the wind range but never looked happy below 10kts of breeze.

The America's Cup has always been a time management exercise, and the 2021 regatta is no different. However, if the trophy's next holders are serious about getting more teams into the Cup, there has to be a better return for sponsors.

Much is being made of the match racing and race sharpness of Luna Rossa. They will enter the America's Cup Match with 22 AC75 races in their logbook, including the ACWS, plus six days of official Practice racing.

Emirates Team New Zealand will have just six races from the America's Cup World Series in December and seven days of Practice Racing.

However the Defender has the advantage of seeing the performance data from the Challengers in the Prada Cup, while not revealing their own. That, in conjunction with information from the reconnaissance team allows the Defender to gauged the boat speed and VMG (speed towards the next mark) and other performance features. Emirates Team NZ can also evaluate the racing tactics employed by the Challengers and develop counter and attack moves.

The same scenario was played out in the 2013 America's Cup, where despite a Protocol requirement to the contrary, Oracle Racing were able to persuade the International Jury that while they were entitled to see the Challengers' performance data, they didn't have to reciprocate. Additionally, as in San Francisco, the Defender also sees the helicopter race video. Emirates Team New Zealand can also review the onboard video and audio from each Challenger and develop a better understanding of how they work in a race. The Challengers again don't have access to the same onboard video from the Defender.

In short, the Defenders have the advantage of information, the Challengers have the advantage of racing.

Whether it has been better to spend the time since the America's Cup World Series in speed development, or getting race sharp in a Prada Cup, will only be answered after the completion of the America's Cup Match.

In different media conferences, Luna Rossa has played up the benefits of match sharpness, and in others that the fastest boat will eventually be able to break a match racing cover to win.

The upcoming Match has some parallels with Luna Rossa's first America's Cup Match in 2000. There the Italians emerged very race sharp from their 5-4 battle with AmericaOne in the Challenger Final. It was hard to imagine how a Challenger that had come through such a testing Louis Vuitton Cup could possibly be beaten in the America's Cup Match.

But that is what happened by a margin of 5-0, with all but one of the races being won by margins of over 60 seconds.

Although the AC75 is the most advanced America's Cup class yet sailed, from what we have seen over the Prada Cup, the 36th Match will be decided along traditional lines - the boat that is ahead in the first cross or two, of the first match will likely take the Cup.

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