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America's Cup: INEOS Team UK bows out as the best British Challenge yet

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 25 Feb 01:34 PST 25 February 2021
The Union Jack flies high mid-evening at the INEOS Team UK - Prada Cup Finals - Day 4 - February 21, 2021 - America's Cup 36 © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

The flags were flying high over the British base after their 7-1 scorecard in the Challenger Finals. And rightly so.

This is the second Challenge Ben Ainslie has led for Britain and a big step up from the 2017 effort sailed in Bermuda.

Remember that was in the mostly one-design foiling, hard wingsailed AC50 catamaran - quite different from the AC75, which is a restricted class with plenty of available design choices and directions. All teams have come out with quite different solutions to the design questions and trade-offs.

Surprisingly amongst the Challengers, at least, the speed differences were not significantly different, and going into the next Cup Britannia II will be a useful piece of kit.

INEOS Team UK turned in the best British performance in the contemporary America's Cup - being the top qualifier for the Final of the Challenger Selection Series. The only other British team to qualify for the CSS Final was Victory '83 which won 31 of her 49 races, while the top qualifier Australian won 44 of her 49 races.

The Brits now seem to have the foundations of a viable team with a permanent base in Portsmouth. Their single sponsor in INEOS is the ideal option. From what has been seen of Jim Ratcliffe and friends, the value they add to the team is more than just money. With INEOS, Ainslie is freed of having to juggle the expectations of a raft of well-meaning sponsors - as he did in the 2017 campaign.

With an engineering degree Ratcliffe should have the ability to understand the principles of AC75 engineering and design, unlike other Cup backers who are money-men, event impresarios, IT moguls or property developers. INEOS Team UK is part of a wider INEOS sports group that embraces Grenadiers pro-cycling, Mercedes F1 and professional football - giving all teams the ability to draw on the expertise and fresh thinking of others in the group, if required.

The Brits' campaign had its highs and lows. The lows mostly being situations forced on them by COVID.

They were able to turn around a dreadful showing in the America's Cup World Series in mid-December to win the Prada Cup Round Robin in mid-January. How they achieved that improvement is known only to the team, but just being able to effect that sort of turnaround in a month is quite remarkable in the context of any America's Cup.

The team were very innovative in both their boats. The first was said to be slow but never raced. The second was different. Whether it performed to design expectations is again known only the team. It's main purpose was always going to be as a test platform.

Their key objective at present should be to keep the team, the data and knowledge together for the next challenge. Continuity into the first year of a new Cup cycle is vital, rather than trying a startup with new backers, designers, engineers and sailors - and no performance data. If the AC75 stays as the America's Cup Class, the Brits will be in a strong position for AC37, provided they can objectively do some objective self-analysis and get their strategy and structure right.

With their SailGP team, INEOS Team UK have the ability to develop their sailing team and keep sharp, as well as providing the team with an ongoing international and commercial profile. Ainslie and friends performed outstandingly at their first SailGP event in Sydney in February 2020.

Had COVID not intervened a month later, who knows where the team would have gone in the 36th America's Cup, had Ainslie, Giles Scott and others been able to compete on the full SailGP circuit before transitioning into the AC75.

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