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Gladwells Line: SailGP Season 3 off to a great start

by Richard Gladwell Sail-World NZ 16 May 05:45 PDT 17 May 2022
The SailGP F50 catamaran fleet in action on Race Day 2 of Bermuda SailGP presented by Hamilton Princess, Season 3, in Bermuda © Simon Bruty for SailGP

Tom Slingsby (AUS/USA) helmed the Australia SailGP team to a convincing win in the Final of the first event of SailGP Season 3 in Bermuda.

The regatta proved to be a happier hunting ground for Slingsby than five years previously. As part of the Oracle Racing team, they could not defend the 2017 America's Cup and were beaten by Emirates Team New Zealand.

Slingsby was able to reverse that result on Sunday, with an out of form New Zealand team unable to make the cut for the Final Race.

The Australian team went into the second day of racing in Bermuda in third overall, with 21pts trailing Great Britain on 23pts. In their first SailGP outing, the rookie Canadian team topped the leaderboard after three races on Day 1 and started Day 2 well clear of the nine boat fleet on 25pts.

Maybe not surprisingly, those three teams went on to make up the final race, where the positions were reversed in a winner take all Final.

SailGP New Zealand was always going to be a long shot at making the Final after exiting Day 1 with just 15pts on the leaderboard and lying in seventh overall of the nine-team fleet. Jimmy Spithill (also AUS/USA), the skipper of Oracle Racing in the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda, was only 1pt ahead of the Kiwis on 16pts. There were two Rookie teams in the regatta - Canada, who topped the leaderboard after Day 1 and Switzerland, who was ninth out of a fleet of nine.

The New Zealanders recovered from an average start but got clear air from to leeward of SailGP USA (Jimmy Spithill, and grabbed the inside running (and shortest route) to Mark 1, and was second for the first half of the seven leg Race 4, before wresting the leadoff Denmark, and going on to score an easy win. That got them to 25 points - a massive pickup of 10 pts from the overnight situation, and within 3pts of making the Final cut. Canada had their worst race of the series, finishing 7th and tying with Ben Ainslie (Great Britain) on the top of the points table with both on 29pts and Slingsby 1pt behind on 28pts. Slingsby had made the podium in only one race out of four races sailed. Robertson and Ainslie had two podium places, with Ainslie scoring two wins from the three races sailed on Day 1.

An up-and-coming tennis player until he was 20yrs old, Slingsby aced the final race scoring his first win from five races and moved 2pts clear of Great Britain's Ben Ainslie on 36pts and Canada's Phil Robertson on 35pts. The Rookie Canadian crew had a 4pt gap on Denmark with 31pts/4th, the USA on 30pts/5th and New Zealand 29pts/6th.

Again the race was won at the start with Slingsby sailing himself into a position where he was on the front row of boats and had protected his leeward side. He created the room to turn down by herding Denmark and Canada to windward.

Slingsby was the first to drop his bow with 5 seconds to go and quickly got onto a line for the shortest course for Mark 1, hitting 37kts while Canada and Denmark above him were sailing even faster but with a longer distance sail. Once a team had the lead at Mark 1 or was in second, it was hard to lose while the van of the fleet struggled in each other's turbulence for the rest of the race.

The fundamentals for a good start are: Pace; Position (a clear view of the breeze and good lateral separation from neighbouring boats); A very accurate time on distance ability.

All of which is easy to say, and see on a screen, but is a lot harder to execute.

One of the learnings from the 2021 America's Cup was the effect of turbulence on the foiling monohulls. In Bermuda this was a significant factor in the SailGP Bermuda, where winds were at the lighter end of the scale - less than 13kts (24kms), particularly with nine boats on the furious fast reach from the start line to the first mark.

Leg 1 is akin to the start of an F1 race where the drivers jockey for position at high speed going into the first corner. It can be carnage and is always chaotic.

"The effect of turbulence is dependent on wind strength to some extent," Phil Robertson told Sail-World in an interview before the start of Season 3.

"In lighter winds, there is more air being sucked out. If you gybe early at Mark 1, you sail into an area of no wind, and turbulence is a significant factor.

"Again, it is all about positioning before you get to that mark, where you are positioning yourself relative to the boats around you, and where you are picking your spot to gybe. You are trying to compute all that while sailing at up to 50kts and trying not to crash into anyone else. It is racing on a knife-edge and is very exciting!"

Notably, the Australians had a very consistent series up to Race 4 - all their places were in the top five, while others were recording the occasional 7th and worse places - with no discard races allowed.

The Final Race of the series, while determining the winner, doesn't offer a lot of insight into the form and issues. After Day 1, Slingsby admitted he had to look to himself to get better starts, and he certainly did that in the three races he sailed

on Day 2.

On the leaderboard at the end of Race 5, Australia had the best/lowest combined point score with 6pts from a fourth and a first on Day 2 for 5pts. The Australian were the most consistent across the series - never being out of the top five in any race - the only team to beat that benchmark.

The imperative for any team is to win the start and the race to Mark 1 - and take it from there. The area that will lead to the greatest gains in future series is starting practice.

Many will make assessments of competitor performance in SailGP and extrapolate that into a discussion about the outcome of the 2024 America's Cup.

Last weekend, what we saw in SailGP in Bermuda had also played out in the 36th America's Cup. Winning the start was the best way of winning the race. In Auckland, with Jimmy Spithill, arguably the best match racer in the fleet, at the starboard helm of Luna Rossa, was able to win most of the starts and was a big reason why the score was 3-3 after six races in the Match itself.

Four America's Cup helmsmen - Peter Burling, Jimmy Spithill, Ben Ainslie, and Tom Slingsby competed in Bermuda last weekend. A possible fifth, Nathan Outteridge, was in the commentary booth.

While it is too early to come to definitive conclusions for the 2024 America's Cup, the analysis of 11 SailGP regattas this Season 3 will undoubtedly be an interesting exercise in that regard.

Canada SailGP's first day's dominance didn't continue on Day 2. But making the cut for the Final is a significant achievement for a rookie team in its first regatta - particularly one which has just expanded to nine boats.

Along with the other rookie team Switzerland, which placed ninth out of nine boats, Canada will be on the steepest learning curve, and their work-on list will probably effect the most change of any of the teams.

While some are quick to point out that Canada is not a true rookie team because of the inclusion of skipper Phil Robertson, now in his third SailGP season, and wingsail trimmer Chris Draper (on loan from Japan SailGP).

But look at who they beat - the current Americas Cup Champions. The skipper from the winning boat in the 2021 Prada Cup and a double America's Cup winner. Plus Ben Ainslie. Of course, many of Tom Slingsby's crew come from the 2017 America's Cup and Oracle Team USA. Ben Ainslie also has several aboard from the 2021 Prada Cup, where they were the top boat from the Qualifying Round.

Other than the two mentioned, all the Canadian SailGP crew were in their first SailGP regatta and first series in an F50, AC50 or AC75.

There are six crew positions on a SailGP racer - two of the Canadian crew might be experienced at the same level as others in the fleet - but give the others some credit for doing exceptionally well in their first regatta and giving the event a serious shakeup.

There is a lot more to come in Season 3 - it got off to a great start.

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