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Is there a need for speed?

by Mark Jardine 27 Nov 2023 12:00 PST
Machined titanium and carbon T-Foil © SailGP

It's that famous line by Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun while walking towards his F-14 Tomcat with Goose, "I feel the need, the need for speed". Sailing seems to have been following the mantra, with the F50s of SailGP and the AC40 / AC75 combination of the America's Cup getting ever faster.

With stadium courses, and a schedule set by TV, SailGP is always looking for ways to increase the light wind performance of the catamarans. The circuit's aim is to get them sailing regardless of the wind strength, so that they're out racing when SailGP has its live slots on the television networks around the world.

Light winds are a problem. A lowriding F50 isn't a pretty sight, and trying to explain why one catamaran is going four times the speed of another to a non-sailing audience is tricky. For the light stuff the massive 29 metre wings were developed, but they've been out of action since the catastrophic failure of the New Zealand SailGP team's wing. The other measure taken is reducing crew numbers in light winds to keep the weight down, and hopefully induce foiling earlier.

In strong winds SailGP seems obsessed about the top speed numbers. The record at the time of writing is 99.94 km/h, set by the France SailGP Team in Saint Tropez back in September 2022, and the '100 km/h barrier' is the target they've been trying to break for over a year now.

To this end, SailGP is testing machined titanium and carbon T-Foils. These have thinner sections than the current L-Foils, which delay the onset of cavitation by around 11 km/h, which should allow the F50 catamarans to reach speeds of up to 110 km/h - that's 59 knots in units us sailors understand.

In the America's Cup the need for speed is obvious, as it's not a one-design contest. The Auld Mug is won by the team with the fastest yacht for any given design rule. Right now, it's the AC75, and the teams are spending immense amounts of time and money trying to develop the fastest yacht within the rule.

Many argue that the America's Cup was more exciting when sailed in 12 Metres, which aren't exactly quick by today's standards. Back then, alongside the keels hiding behind veils, much of the focus was on the sailors and their press conferences. The comments and rivalries made the headlines with Dennis Conner and John Bertrand's sparring being the stuff of legend.

The question is: for Grand Prix sailboat racing, is there a need for more speed? Or do we actually just need more access to the personalities, and for more rivalries?

Making the comparison with Formula One motor racing, I had no idea what the highest speed of an F1 car was, so headed to Wikipedia to find out that Valtteri Bottos set a top race speed of 372.499 km/h or 231.46 mph during the 2016 Mexican Grand Prix. I'm sure there are some petrolheads out there who knew this stat, but it was interesting that it was a quite a while ago, and I doubt many F1 fans are obsessed with it.

The times Formula One works is when there are great rivalries - think of Prost and Senna, Hill and Schumacher, Alonso and Hamilton - and that's when fans picked one or the other and supported them. No-one wanted to know what speed they were going, they wanted to see them wheel-to-wheel on the racetrack, and verbally sparring in the pre- and post-race press conferences.

Do increased speeds in the F50 make for a better spectator sport? As I continue to be enthralled by the SSL Gold Cup, I haven't seen yacht speeds mentioned anywhere, and I'm pretty sure the SSL 47 yachts have only occasionally reached double figures in knots, but the racing has been spectacular.

The final day of the 1/8 Finals on Friday produced some of the most exciting sailboat racing I've ever seen, with plenty of place-changing right up to the finish line. As I mentioned a fortnight ago, the on-board cameras are providing an incredible insight as to what the crew are going through, and helping us understand the highs of winning, and the lows of losing.

The SSL Gold Cup continues to gather interest in some of the smaller sailing nations, with Portugal, Chile, Malaysia and Lithuania the four teams who started their racing back on the 10th November, avoiding elimination and reaching the 1/4 Finals. The audience in Lithuania and Malaysia for the event is massive, with national television and other media showing the racing live, running all the news and the sailors becoming household names. This event is accessing fans which sailing simply hadn't reached before.

National teams, who otherwise wouldn't have the finance to compete, are at the SSL Gold Cup. The provided one-design SSL47 yachts are the level playing field for the likes of Tahiti to go toe-to-toe with the all-star Brazil team - that's a nation with a population of 190,000 taking on one with 214 million...

Being the first edition, the rivalries are yet to emerge at the SSL Gold Cup. Everyone is just happy to be here in Gran Canaria and taking part, but over time as the concept grows and is refined, these rivalries will build. They may well emerge as we get closer to the Final on 3rd December.

It's easy for you to keep track of what's happening in the event as we're embedding the live footage on Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com each day, as well as giving you comprehensive reports, glorious photos and highlight videos. There's no need for speed, just great racing.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com

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