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Up and down, inside-out SailGP

by Mark Jardine 16 Oct 2023 12:00 PDT
USA SailGP Team helmed by Jimmy Spithill on Race Day 1 of the Spain Sail Grand Prix in Cadiz, Spain © Ricardo Pinto for SailGP

A criticism that is often levelled at Formula 1 motor racing is that it's too predictable. One team, or more often, one driver, dominates the racing. Red Bull's Max Verstappen this season is on 433 points with his team-mate Sergio Perez, his closest rival, an extraordinary 209 points behind.

Verstappen's domination is almost total, having won fourteen of this season's seventeen races held so far, with the other drivers openly saying they are competing for second place.

At first glance, SailGP could be regarded in the same way, with the Australian SailGP Team, helmed by Tom Slingsby, winning all three seasons so far and leading the Season 4 Championship by seven points, but there's a lot more to it.

This past weekend's Spain Sail Grand Prix in Cádiz, Andalucía showed just how topsy-turvy SailGP can be: winner of the previous two events, Sir Ben Ainslie's Emirates GBR, finished eighth, and Diego Botin's Spain SailGP team won Race 1 and finished last in Race 5, with a compete mix of results in-between.

In marginal foiling conditions errors are amplified and races have the potential to go inside-out repeatedly as the F50s go on and off the foils. Winning the start is regarded as key in sailing, and is also often pivotal in SailGP, but there were times, especially in the three-boat final race in Cádiz, where being behind on the start proved to be advantageous.

So, while Formula 1 is criticised for predictability, should SailGP be lambasted for its lack thereof?

After watching Sunday's racing, I was trying to think of a single other sport where there is a point when competitors can be travelling at such wildly different speeds as foiling and non-foiling boats. I have yet to think of one. For sure there are mismatches in sport, but this isn't the case here as the sailors are all top-class. This is where one boat has slightly more wind than another, enabling them to get on the foils and travel up to four times faster than their competitors.

The question is, does it make for good watching? I have to admit I was gripped by the racing, but was that just me trying to track the wind bouncing and swirling off the high sea wall in Cádiz? Did the United States SailGP Team deserve to take the event win after picking up a penalty just before the start?

As the winning skipper Jimmy Spithill said, post-race: "I'd actually prefer not to take you through the start; there was nothing pretty about it. I didn't see the boundary but as it turns out, that worked in our favour. For the teams in front at Mark 1 the wind had started to go light, so we were able to gybe and lead them out of there, and that was really the race."

Interestingly the Australian SailGP Team haven't yet won an event in Season 4, but they've recorded event results of 2, 3, 2, 2, 3 in the five events so far. Despite not winning, Tom Slingsby is SailGP's Mr Consistent, but as he freely admits he wants to be on the winner's stage.

The fiercely competitive Slingsby said after racing: "I'm sick of hearing it's good for the overall points at the end of an event, I want to hear: well done you guys have won. I understand it's a good result, but it's been five finals now where we haven't won. We haven't sailed well enough, and I need to do better."

In the lighter winds teams are developing different strategies for getting the F50s foiling earlier. Nicolai Sehested's ROCKWOOL Denmark Team seem to have found a mode which gets them up and away well, winning Races 4 and 5 on Sunday ahead of the top-three shootout, while Jimmy Spithill decided to helm and control the ride-height himself in the final race, putting two sailors on the grinders when sailing with four on board. It's tricky to say whether this tactic was decisive as it was their early gybe after the first mark which was the winning move, benefitting from seeing ROCKWOOL Denmark Team and the Australian SailGP Team fall into a light patch ahead of them.

Maybe the racing would have seen more foiling if the vast 29 metre wings were available, but these are out of action while the SailGP technical team investigate why Peter Burling and Blair Tuke's New Zealand team's wing catastrophically collapsed in St. Tropez. Until this is resolved the teams will be restricted to the 24 metre wings in light winds and sailing with fewer crew onboard to minimise the weight.

The big question for SailGP is how this looks to non-sailors. After all, their target is to appeal to the mainstream sports fan. The fans have certainly turned out in force at the European events and been loudly cheering for their home team. SailGP is made for TV and is gradually making progress at getting betters slots where casual viewers will pick up on it. Hopefully they can make sense of it.

I've talked to many sailors about SailGP and have heard the full range of opinions including love, hate, and indifference. My hope is that it is working commercially and for the TV channels, as any way we can get sailing in front of a wider audience is good. To persuade more people onto the water, and into sailing, is visibility. SailGP, while vastly detached from mainstream sailing, provides that visibility, and may be the first step for a person to decide they want to be a part of it.

Aspiration is a powerful thing and can provide the ambition and drive needed to make those difficult first steps in sailing. We, as sailors, should be behind SailGP, and all sailing that makes it to TV, as we need that visibility to increase the size of our sport. Who knows, maybe the next Tom Slingsby will be one of the young fans who chanced upon watching the Spain Sail Grand Prix. Time will tell!

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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