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Great sport requires great rivalries

by Mark Jardine 22 Aug 12:00 PDT
Start of last race on day 1 of the ROCKWOOL Denmark Sail Grand Prix © Jonathon Nackstrand for SailGP

Interest in a sport, outside of the fanatics and those who regularly take part in that discipline, requires great rivalries, and thanks to SailGP we now can regularly see the greatest names in sailing compete in some of the most exciting racing machines ever built.

Men's tennis has - for a decade - seen the best players of all time push each other to greatness. The rivalry between Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and Novak Djokovic has been incredible, with each winning 20 Grand Slams - a feat that not long ago would have been unthinkable for a single player, let alone all three of them.

Sailing has its greats, but too often they have been at the top of different areas of the sport. Ben Ainslie in the Finns, Tom Slingsby in the Lasers, Nathan Outteridge and Pete Burling in the 49ers, and Jimmy Spithill match racing or part of an America's Cup campaign. There have been times when some of these have met on the America's Cup or International Moth racecourses, but the events were few and far between.

SailGP has provided the platform for the 'Big Five' to meet in competition on a regular basis. Yes, I'm sure that other names could be in the mix of being regarded as the greatest in our sport, but they are who I would class as the stand-out sailors of our generation, and they are the ones who are duking it in the F50 catamarans.

SailGP wouldn't be possible without the backing of Larry Ellison and the vision of Russell Coutts. The idea of a professional circuit of one-design yachts isn't a new one and is something Russell dabbled with previously with the RC44 circuit, which continues to this day, most recently in Cowes. The RC44 (yes, with the name being the initials of the aforementioned legendary sailor) was a scaled-down IACC yacht, which was the America's Cup class of the time.

The F50s only had one outing in the America's Cup as the AC50, so were the perfect platform to work from to create a global circuit. A huge amount of development work had already gone into making them capable of 50 knots, and with the solid wingsails they were striking. Now that there are eight of the machines on the same course, the racing is spectacular.

The aim is of course for SailGP to become a sustainable circuit, with sponsors on board for each team and venues putting in big bucks to host events. This is difficult at any time, but with the global situation as it is right now, it's close to impossible. In the meantime Larry Ellison is continuing to show faith in the product and it is making great strides to be sustainable from an environmental perspective. There is a long way to go, but huge steps are being made.

When it comes to televising the racing, LiveLine was revolutionary in the 2013 America's Cup and has continued to evolve to make the product more digestible for non-sailors. There's no doubt that some changes have grated with the core audience of die-hard sailors, such as the move from knots to kilometres per hour, but outside of yachtsmen this metric is far more widely used. I can't say I'm getting used to it and find myself googling the conversions. Even when the Great Britain SailGP Team set a new F50 speed record of 98.3 km/h, I found myself saying 53.1 knots when passing the news on to my friends - sailors and non-sailors alike. Yes, when the 100km/h barrier is broken it will be a milestone, but it'll most likely still be 54 knots to me...

With eight boats and the vast amount of telemetry coming to the global production base in London, the graphical overlays have been laggy at times, but this is a circuit which is pushing the boundaries in many ways, so it was inevitable that everything would need honing continuously.

This weekend we saw the Australian team dominate the ROCKWOOL Denmark Sail Grand Prix to make it back-to-back victories for Tom Slingsby's team. The short, sharp races are incredibly intense, but there is mutual respect between the teams and that came across with Slingsby openly admitting that his team has been learning from Nathan Outteridge's light wind technique:

"I will happily say I have been copying Nathan and his team. In the past they have copied us in the heavy air conditions but in light winds they are a step above us. So, we looked at all their data - as you can't hide anything. We are still not there; Nathan had two firsts, we had a near last today, so we have a long way to go but fortunately the last race went our way."

Then there is his respect for Sir Ben Ainslie:

"It is not often you get to beat Ben Ainslie on a racetrack - he is a legend, he is the greatest of all time and losing this event doesn't change that. He is an unbelievable sailor and you really have to sail at the top of your game to beat him. Our team did that today and I am so proud of the whole team."

Ainslie was just as respectful with his view on Slingsby and his team:

"The Australians sailed a great race. We can't try and take that away from them. They deserved the victory and to be honest we were racing for second with Japan. It's a shame as it's a point lost in the overall season, but we will move on and try and get it back in Saint-Tropez."

As sailors we need to spread the word about this great showcase of our sport. Also, while things inevitably bubble over sometimes during any competitive activity, remember to respect our rivals and try to keep any bad blood to a minimum; be ready to share a beer when back ashore. It's not always easy to do, but competitive sailing is as much built on friendships as rivalries. The great tennis players have shown each other huge respect, and it's superb to see the SailGP skippers do likewise.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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