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Henri-Lloyd 2022 December - SW LEADERBOARD

Gladwell's Line: Have the Kiwis finally 'Cracked the SailGP Code?'

by Richard Gladwell/ 30 Jul 2022 23:15 PDT
New Zealand SailGP Team in action during a practice session ahead of the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix | Plymouth in Plymouth, England. 28th July 2022 © Ricardo Pinto/SailGP

After failing to fire in a consistent way for Season 2 and the two events so far in Season 3 of SailGP, the Peter Burling skippered NZSailGP team appeared to have turned the corner on the opening day of SailGP Great Britain. They repeated the performance on Day 2, winning the Final

Sailing on the historic Plymouth Sound, several improvements in their performance rectified former weaknesses or regular failings. With the mass of performance data available, it is tempting to believe that any performance improvement is the result of "cracking the code" or achievement of some magic number or setting.

Most of the Kiwi strategy seemed to be a focus on getting the basics right, minimising mistakes, and being able to think/dig themselves out of a hole, when an error was made.

What were the changes?

First, their starting improved out of sight.

Going right back through to the start of Season 2 of SailGP and the last two America's Cups, Burling's crew has never really been able to dominate a start, get their time on distance accurate, get out of the line with clear air, and avoid being over-run by other competitors - in either a fleet or match race situation.

Burling relies on being able to sail faster than his opponent, applying relentless pressure, forcing a mistake - then he pounces.

In the America's Cup in Bermuda, the Kiwis made no secret that their focus was not on winning the start or, indeed, the fast first leg, but instead that they were in contact and able to attack from Mark 2.

The team's shortcomings in SailGP Season 2 were understandable, given they were thrown into the deep end with a new boat, had practice time heavily restricted by Covid, and had a lot of bugs that needed to be worked out of a new boat and supplied systems. They were also trying to run America's Cup, Olympic and SailGP programs, as well as their commitments to the start-up of conservation charity Live Ocean.

They were juggling a lot of balls - maybe too many. But even so, the NZ SailGP co-skippers, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke successfully defended the America's Cup 7-3, and tied on points with the 49er Olympic Gold Medal winner at Tokyo2020 last August. Those are two outstanding achievements, but their SailGP results seem to attract the most attention.

With most of those distractions out of the way after Season 2, a significant improvement was expected for SailGP's Season 3 - but it didn't happen. As well as a litany of starting errors, the double America's Cup Champions seemed to have a lot of difficulty recovering from a mistake in Leg 1 or 2 of a SailGP Race and getting back in touch with the leaders.

Despite the frustrating mixed results, they had been consistent enough to lie in fourth overall on Season 3 points - despite never making the Final and Podium to date in SailGP.

Fellow Kiwi skipper Phil Robertson, helming a rookie Canadian entry (albeit in the Japan team's F50 and with the very experienced Chris Draper trimming), threw the Kiwi's lack of form into sharp relief when the Crazy Canucks won their very first race and topped the leaderboard after Day 1 in Bermuda. They hung on through the second day and made the Final on the first attempt. Something the Kiwis had not achieved.

Despite winning Race 4 at the start of Day 2 in Bermuda, a muffed start in the Race 5 dropped the NZSailGP team out of the Final race contention.

The Kiwis came back better on Day 1 in the second event in Chicago - winning the first race. But had issues in their rake control system requiring the replacement of a valve between races and did well to be lying third overall after Day 1. But again, they failed under pressure on the second day - unable to finish better than sixth in Race 5, and fought fleet turbulence to let the Australian team slide into third place overall - qualifying for the Final - going on to win that in the winner take all format.

Time for a change

After Chicago, which was the second SailGP event for new coach Ray Davies, it was clear that some brutal reviews had taken place.

The more noticeable change was substituting double Olympic medalist Jo Aleh for Live Ocean Racing's ETF26 skipper and Nacra 17 sailor Liv Mackay. However, changing just one team member rarely makes much difference in a sports team's performance, and there are always other underlying causes.

The switch-out may have changed the chemistry in the afterguard and made for a different communication style.

Jo Aleh is one of the toughest sailors amongst female sailing ranks and has performed very well in open competition in the 470 class. She and crew Molly Meech are still climbing the performance ladder in the Olympic 49er FX skiff class - giving Aleh a better appreciation of the nuances of apparent wind sailing.

The Kiwis aboard Live Ocean looked mediocre once again on Day 1 of Plymouth when Australia overran them in the final metres of the start in Race 1. The Green and Golds were immediately penalised for an early start.

That penalty got the Kiwis past Australia but didn't rectify the damage - and they rounded Mark 1 in 7th place, looking like returning to the bad old ways.

Their nemesis Canada had once again pulled off a daring, perfect start. They led a group at Mark 1 who fed the Kiwis plenty of turbulence - forcing them to gybe away early with the British underneath and dropping the Kiwis back to eighth in the nine-boat fleet.

At Mark 2, Burling and friends were back up to fifth thanks mainly to a snafu by USA, who came off their foils in a gybe, coming to a near halt, while the others were sailing at 35kts. But the Kiwis were still in turbulence and had no real option but to tack early and head for the right-hand lay line.

The Kiwis found more pressure on the right-hand side of the course. Whether that was by accident, good spotting by the crew, or now-allowed input from the coach, the upshot was a handy lead, with the Kiwis sailing higher and faster. They consolidated their advantage into third on the next cross and second around Mark 3 at the end of the second windward leg.

Around the bottom mark for the second time, a slow early tack onto port resulted in the Kiwis being penalised for not giving way to the French, and again the New Zealanders looked to be lapsing into their previous Jekyll and Hyde ways and had to drop back to third behind the Tricolores.

That was how it remained until Canada and France had a snafu rounding the final mark, as Canada swung tight. France swung wide - halving the speed to 15kts on both boats - while the Kiwis smelled blood and came in on a slingshot approach at over 30kts, snatching second place and being a tad unlucky not to have the momentum to grab a race win.

Turning point

The Downs and Ups of Race 1 marked a turning point for the Kiwis, demonstrating their ability, for the first time in SailGP, to be able to take some calculated risks and climb back through the fleet when errors had been made, or they were on the receiving end of some bad luck.

The Starts in Races 2 and 3 were both won by New Zealand after they pulled off two daring runs getting their objectives of millimetre accurate time on distance, speed and position, and need to be in clear air, all to near perfection - a remarkable change from their previous performances in Season 2 and 3.

Burling made an unforced error at the start of Leg 2, sailing over a course boundary and got penalised.

But as in Race 1, the Kiwis managed to dig their way out of what would have been a turbulence-riddled, race-losing fifth place by sailing once again into the right-hand corner of the course, picking up increased pressure - probably with the bonus of a favourable shift and rounded Mark 3 just behind the Australian crew.

The Kiwis spent some of their margin covering the third-placed French in the final stages of the second windward leg of Race 2. It proved to be a sound investment - securing them second place. The New Zealanders turned in a consistent performance on a day marked by the inconsistency of others.

In Race 3, the Kiwis pulled off a start which ticked all the four criteria essential to a good start - timing, position, pace, and clear air. Unbelievably they were even closer to the start line than Race 2.

The Kiwis carried good momentum into the opening stanzas of Race 3, Leg 1, rounding Mark 1 in clear air. As usually happens in the America's Cup and SailGP in this situation, the rich get richer, provided there are no unforced errors. The Kiwis cantered around the rest of the course, so far in front, they were off screen for much of the remainder of the race, enjoying a 25second or 300-metre lead, leaving the peloton to scrap for the minor places - which went to Denmark and Canada respectively.

While one good race day does not make a series win, there was plenty of indication that the Kiwis had developed a new playbook that worked for them.

A scan down the Kiwi crew list revealed eight Olympic medals and two Finn Gold Cup winners from the six crew, of which five - Burling, Tuke, Maloney, Junior and Aleh formed a core unit. Marcus Hansen and Louis Sinclair rotated as grinders. The real test for the Kiwis will come on the second day of the series, and fans will find out whether the Kiwis can retain momentum and confidence.

The Jo-effect?

Time will also tell whether Jo Aleh's inclusion has changed the sailing team's performance, and also if others will be rotated into the afterguard.

The 470 Olympic Gold and Silver medalist is renowned as a gritty sailor, over-endowed with short-term focus and attitude. Her finest hour probably came in the Rio 2016 Olympics, where she and Polly Powrie were reckoned mid-series to be so far down the fleet to be unable to get back into medal contention, let alone defend their Olympic title - which they had won in a canter four years previously in Weymouth.

After spending much of the first half of the regatta in the Jury room, Aleh and Powrie's response was to make what proved to be some critical tactical decisions on the penultimate day, returning a 1,1,4 scorecard in a very competitive fleet, and then finished the ten-boat medal race in third place - enough to win the Silver medal.

Aleh and Powrie dug themselves out of a very deep hole, applying some very short-term thinking and not worrying about the big picture.

Aleh later described the Silver medal win as "the proudest moment of our careers to date".

The second day of racing on Plymouth Sound will be fascinating, not just for the performance of NZSailGP/Live Ocean but also for the performance of several other newer crews against the more established America's Cup and Olympic winners, sailing the F50s, who had a below average performance, by their standards, on the first day of SailGP Great Britain. The competition has become much closer and more accurate, and the legacy way of racing, which worked for the first Season or two, isn't good enough anymore.

Two more races will be sailed on Sunday afternoon, followed by a winner takes all Final contested by the top three crews from the five qualifying races.

Maybe after those two, or three races, we will know if this is indeed repeatable performance by the Kiwi crew.

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