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Gladwell's Line: Rolling the America's Cup dice - what factors will determine the winner?

by Richard Gladwell, 4 Mar 2021 15:52 PST 5 March 2021
Luna Rossa and Te Rehutai - Emirates Team New Zealand - Practice Racing - America's Cup World Series - December 10, 2020 - Waitemata Harbour - America's Cup 36 © Richard Gladwell /

Most will be aware the long-awaited America's Cup Match will not start on time this Saturday due to Auckland being in its fourth COVID19 Lockdown in 12 months.

Until the Lockdown status is clarified by the Labour Government and Ministry of Health, the 36th America's Cup is off its foils. [Update: An answer is expected Friday afternoon NZT]

COVID19 has overshadowed the 36th America's Cup to the point where the outcome has been significantly affected by how the Cup teams have played the cards dealt to them by the pandemic.

A couple of weeks ago a three-day Lockdown was called midway through the Challenger Finals - but by that point, Luna Rossa was up 4-0, and it was difficult to see how the British team could turn that result around.

In Race 6, the Brits were able to get a win out of the series, but on the water, Luna Rossa asked questions the Brits couldn't answer.

That small speed differential was enough for the Italians to get their nose in front, at the first or second cross after the start.

Throughout the Prada Cup the lead boat has been able to extend by picking up any extra wind pressure coming down the course. In the AC75 an extra knot of wind speed gets translated into two or three kts of boat speed on the water - and that takes a lot of rubbing out.

If there is no wind pressure, or useful shift, on offer to the lead boat, then the game is just to cover your opponent using moves from the standard match-racing playbook.

The downwind leg is the opportunity for the trailing boat to pick the puffs and shifts to make gains, and quite often margins have been reduced.

But it is one thing to catch up, and another to pass.

Shortened race Program

A capsize and a COVID lockdown disrupted what was already quite a light race schedule in the Prada Cup - given that there are only three Challenger teams.

Without American Magic's indiscretion in a rain squall at the final mark of Round Robin 2, the Challenger Round Robin should have gone for a full four rounds. As it was the Round Robin consisted of just two Rounds, and one race from the third round, and two "ghost races".

To the surprise of even themselves, INEOS Team UK was able to turn around a depressing performance in the America's Cup World Series/Xmas Cup which saw them retire from one race and "finish" a whopping two legs or 5.5km behind Emirates Team New Zealand in another.

The kiwis saved the Brits further ignominy by failing to meet a finishing time limits by seconds, and both were recorded as DNF.

The story of this Prada Cup was about boats finding form at the right time - and in Luna Rossa's case that happenstance occurred just when it was needed - in the Final.

Now we are at the point where there should have been pre-Lockdown with just two sleeps left to the start of the America's Cup. Pre-COVID, we should now have been heading into the usual preliminaries of a pre-Match Media Conference.

The declaration of the two yachts' configuration for Cup was completed on Monday - as scheduled.

The teams had to select several items of equipment including hull and mast section which should not have caused too much head-scratching. But the choice of rudders, wings and foil arms is more vexed and possibly weather dependent - without knowing the forecast for a regatta that doesn't have a confirmed start date.

While the sailing teams put a brave face on the situation, the initial control of the 36th America's Cup Match is in the hands of a group of epidemiologists, politicians, bureaucrats and the Director-General of Health, rather than the Regatta Director.

As a high profile sporting event, the America's Cup teams have to work within the dictates of the applicable COVID Alert Level.

However on the water, a proper competition must be run, and that includes the use of all courses. If some venue is problematic because of concerns about fans congregating and social distancing issues - then that venue has to be blocked off from fan access - as happens with other sports.

Otherwise, the tail is wagging the dog, which happened with the course restrictions in the Prada Cup Final.

How will the Cup work out?

My expectation is that it will be the same as the other Prada Cup series - where one boat has an edge in speed, and as we saw in the Challenger Final that tends to turn into a series of wins on the water.

On that basis expect to see a similar scoreline to Bermuda - but by which team?

This Cup has developed into a game of development leapfrog, where the teams have added new gear or systems in between rounds, and have usually achieved a substantial performance gain as a result.

We have been reliably told that the upwind VMG of the AC75's has increased by a couple of knots up to the end of the Final. Given the upwind VMG is about 15kts - you can work out how that translates into boat speed. It's a significant change.

For all its high-tech, the AC75 is still a very immature class, and in the maturation process, rapid design development is only possible once some accurate performance data has been developed - and verified by racing performance, as being competitive.

The hull and structure design for these race boats was signed off almost a year ago, and before the teams had the chance to race their first AC75's in the two America's Cup World Series Regattas scheduled for April and June 2020 and curtailed by the COVID pandemic. Instead, they have gone up a steep learning curve in Auckland over the America's Cup World Series and Prada Cup.

When the AC75's first appeared back in September 2019, the fan focus was all on hull shape.

Now the view seems to be accepted that the hull is just an endplate between the rig and the water - which explains the unusual (for a regular monohull yacht) design treatments of the deck and cockpit design, of which Emirates Team New Zealand is probably the most extreme example.

A key feature of both Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand is in the way they have both tidied up the lower metre or so of the mainsail. The interface between the mainsail and the hull is now a tight seal.

At the outset of the AC75, it was felt that the soft double-skinned mainsail would be substantially less efficient than a hard wingsail. But with clever use of battening in the top and bottom of the sail, the power has been increased to the point where there is probably a minimal difference between the hard wingsail and the double-skinned equivalent.

The latter has a massive advantage in handling, and also in the way the AC75 can be rigged and launched at the start and end of the day - along with the ability to be towed at speed while foil-borne - and with or without sails hoisted.

Much has been made about Luna Rossa having an edge in match racing experience On the basis of what we saw in the Finals of the Prada Cup, starting helmsman, Jimmy Spithill, has certainly been sharpening his match racing claws.

In Bermuda, the Kiwis were short of a gallop in the pre-start of the Round-Robin Qualifier Series.

However, as the Louis Vuitton Trophy progressed, Burling's match-racing skills and confidence improved to the point where he had control in most of the starts in the Match against Jimmy Spithill in Oracle. In fact, it wasn't until Race 6 that the Australian match racing supremo won a start, and Oracle achieved their only win in the series.

In the Semi-Finals of the 2017 Louis Vuitton Cup, opposing helmsman Ben Ainslie gave Burling a hard work-out - setting him up nicely for the Final of the Louis Vuitton Trophy, and the America's Cup.

However, the course was different in Bermuda with a reaching start and then a medium length leg to the bottom mark, Mark 2, before starting on the first of two windward legs. Burling said his strategy in Bermuda was to get to Mark 2 in reasonable shape and begin attacking from there.

Whether he will have a similar strategy in Auckland remains to be seen. The 2021 strategy is probably to get away to a clean start, no penalties, and then either begin an attack from behind or cover and extend if in front after the start.

Testing efficiency

Much is made by video commentators of the almost 80 day time-out that Emirates Team New Zealand have had from Match Racing since their exit from the America's Cup World Series. That could well be a key factor in determining the outcome of the 36th Match.

But what is missed is the efficiency of Emirates Team New Zealand in their testing sessions, away from the camera's view - and before the international commentators arrived in New Zealand. Having spent many, many hours watching the Kiwis train since the launch of their first AC75 in September 2019, there has been noticeably less down time on the Kiwi boats than with the Challenger teams. As well as working with McKinsey & Company on the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the Defenders also had their testing processes worked over by the the leading management and technology consultancy, so that the use of on the water time is as efficient as possible. In a game where time is a commodity that money can't buy, efficient use of the time available is imperative.

Given that the team has been away from boat on boat racing for an 80 day period (Luna Rossa only raced on 10 days in that same time-out), and with their testing efficiency, augmented by information from the AI Bot, it would be logical to expect that Emirates Team New Zealand will be further advanced in the boat speed department. That is evidenced by the developments which have appeared over the past couple of weeks including a radical Batwing mainsail, the lightweight Code Zero and probably a lot more that is invisible to the external eye.

Link that efficiency into a 5G communications network which allows the teams designers the option of going out on the chase boat to watch their part of the day's testing script, or to watch the live test with both the video and the performance data live streamed to their desktop, F1 style. At the end of the test session the designers can discuss the test outcomes directly with the crew, rather than wait for the data and video to be download and then assessed later that day/evening.

The key question will be who has the boatspeed edge, and as in a traditional America's Cup - the answer to that question will probably be known within five minutes of the start of the first race.

It would be surprising given the testing efficiency of Emirates Team New Zealand if they did not have a speed advantage, going into the Match. The question is how much, and whether that can be overcome with sharp matchracing skills.

Much is made of Spithill's low heartrate claimed by commentators to be in the low 60's, Burling in Bermuda for all his nonchalance was pumping away in the 140-160 beats per minute range. Wingsail Trimmer Glenn Ashby was the cool cat on the New Zealand boat, sitting on around 80bpm.

This time it was Spithill who has had Ainslie as his sparring partner in the pre-start. But although he pushed hard, Ainslie was only able to win one start.

Hand revealed?

Ainslie did force Spithill to reveal, maybe inadvertently, a new AC75 match racing trick.

The incident occurred at the start of Race 5 in the Prada Cup Finals, when Luna Rossa pulled on the AC75's handbrake just when Ainslie, driving the give-way boat was trying to squeeze between Luna Rossa and the start mark.

A replay on Virtual Eye shows that the Italians were able to trigger a nosedive, immersing the bow with a hefty high-drag splash, and clock up some drag on the foil arms to decelerate from 28kts to 21kts for a few vital seconds. Luna Rossa came off the foils briefly but had the momentum to get flying again, in short order.

In the nosedive, Spithill very cleverly held his sailing line and suddenly Ainslie was in all sorts of trouble, and at real risk of a collision. While the speed check was not enough to prevent the Italians from starting early, the Brits were similarly caught out. The two boats received offsetting penalties for their joint transgressions.

Yanking on the AC75 handbrake at the right moment meant that Ainslie was penalised for the pre-start incident, as a boat that was required to keep clear, but failed to do so.

Spithill, being Spithill, managed to milk Ainslie's plight for all it was worth, knowing that for a boat on boat penalty, it was not just 50metres of measured distance that Ainslie had to drop back - but 50metres VMG - or effectively windward distance, which is quite a lot more severe. The 50metre penalty became 80metres, on the water.

The Brits' punishment was not cleared until halfway up the first leg and was a complete distraction to them. The red mist descended around the British afterguard, causing a frustrated Ainslie to twice indulge in a shouting match with the Chief Umpire.

Meanwhile, Luna Rossa proceeded to sail away to a handy 80-second win.

One big advantage that Emirates Team New Zealand has - of knowing the Challengers' performance data from the Prada Cup, without the Kiwis disclosing theirs, has diminished with the Lockdown. The data will be 17 days old by the time the America's Cup Match gets underway on March 10, and with more development on Luna Rossa could be out of date.

Given the improvement that Luna Rossa was able to effect in the 13 days between the end of the Semi-Finals and the start of the Prada Cup Finals, it is most unlikely that the Italians have allowed their development to plateau before the Match.

The changes that they did bring into the Prada Cup Finals included a new mast. While the external dimensions of the mast tube are set, the obvious change that would be made is in the laminate specification - which points to a strengthening of the mast to take increased loads from the Cunningham (mainsail luff control hydraulic ram), and the mainsail ram, to depower the rig in a fresh breeze.

As for Emirates Team NZ - expect more from their speed team. The Kiwis have been testing what looks to be a lightweight Code Zero - which if used in the right conditions could be series determining.

But otherwise, there are no external signs of new add-ons, on Te Rehutai, aside from the bat-wing mainsail which has been given an outing in some of the heavy air sessions. Its purpose seems to be to lower the centre of effort of the sail, and solve a few other issues. Like so much else that appears on the Kiwi boats, it always looks intriguing and is usually fast.

Both teams declared their Match configuration (hulls, mast tube, wings foil arms and rudder) on Monday, plus replacements - and it is a reasonable assumption that the declared mode is the one that will be used in training until the start of the Cup.

New sails can be pulled into the mix, but time is running out fast and on what looks likely to be a short five-day regatta.

I'm expecting to see a 7-0 or 7-1 outcome to the Match - based on what has been seen in the Prada Cup Round Robins, Semis and Finals, which have all been one-sided affairs.

Despite the expectation that the Defender and Challenger will have very similar speeds, one team always seemed to have a slight speed advantage, or can consistently sail to a higher VMG. That is to say that while their speed through the water may be comparable, one team will usually be able to point higher upwind, and/or sail deeper angles downwind, resulting in a higher VMG and less distance sailed.

Finally, after almost four long years, we are fast approaching the time when the talking stops and the racing starts.

To read how the bookmakers see the 36th America's Cup panning out click here

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