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SailGP: Coutts critiques and provides form insights on the teams as the Grand Final approaches

by Russell Coutts/SailGP 31 May 18:10 PDT 1-2 June 2024
Canada SailGP Team leads Switzerland SailGP Team during a practice session ahead of the Rockwool Canada Sail Grand Prix in Halifax, Canada - May 31, 2024 © Ricardo Pinto for SailGP

The Rockwool Canada Sail Grand Prix makes its highly-anticipated Canada debut as adrenaline-fuelled racing heads to Halifax on Saturday June 1. Ahead of the event, SailGP CEO Russell Coutts gives his behind the scenes insight of what to expect.

We're making our long-awaited Canada debut on June 1-2, with the action unfolding just meters from the Halifax and Dartmouth shorelines. We've got a sell-out crowd and the town is abuzz with what the weekend has in store. Stepping out in the town, you can feel that Halifax is - without a doubt - amped up about SailGP.

After the drama of the USA practice race capsize in Bermuda from a wing-trimmer error - which saw them ruled out of the entire weekend's racing - swift action to get repairs under way and the replacement wing onto the boat for this next event have paid off, and they're back up and running for the Halifax startline. It was an unfortunate turn of events but I'd say a surprising human error from athletes of this caliber at this level..

Mike Buckley's team go into this weekend's event with what we now know is a permanent change to the crew, with new athlete Jeremy Wilmont on the wing. Alongside their changes to their coaching set-up earlier in the season, this means they're still in the mode of trying to settle in with yet another major change to their line-up.. Racing at this level isn't easy, even when you've got the very best talent like Tom Slingsby, Peter Burling, Jimmy Spithill, Ben Ainslie or Nathan Outteridge... and that's just naming some of the most talented drivers!

The Wing Trimmers and Flight Controllers are obviously also key in maintaining fast stable flight. The grinders are also key, especially when the wind is strong or unstable where active wing trim is vital. And we're also seeing more and more instances where the strategists are now making the difference at key moments. There's no doubt the game has evolved to a new level from one where the Driver, Wing Trimmer and Flight Controller were the main protagonists to the situation now where the entire team is key, including the coaching staff onshore who influence key decisions during the actual race.

We've seen bright spots from the Danish team and French but it's becoming harder and harder to sustain top form against these well rounded "super teams" that have incredible talent in all positions onboard, in fact in all facets of the game.

Right now the Spanish team seem the most likely to challenge the Kiwi's and Aussies who are definitely a click better than the rest.

But for sure teams like the US and Switzerland have a huge mountain to climb. And for the US, their mishaps have certainly heightened existing rivalries; the Canadians wasted no time in provoking the USA in the aftermath of their capsize, so competitive tensions are high. And as with many professional sports, the athletes are not just competing against each other. They have shareholders, fans and sponsors that all demand top performance. When things are going well life is great, but when performances aren't so good it can be very challenging, even for the most seasoned professionals.

With new professional ownership and this new professional era, I suspect we'll see an active competitive market for top talent between Season 4 and 5. I doubt the sport of sailing has really been fully professional in this regard yet, but for sure those times are coming. We already saw some of that between season 3 and 4 where there were moves on some of the Australian athletes, but I suspect that was just the beginning. I can imagine we will eventually see athlete trades, similar to what we see in other sports perhaps sooner than what many (including myself) were anticipating.

Right now Spain is experiencing good results and growing in confidence. Coach and sailing legend Hamish Wilcox believes they have the talent onboard to match and beat any of the other teams. Spain's strong victory in Bermuda bolstered Diego Botin's confidence and season score to 65, just two points shy of three time champions Australia in second. They're having an impressive season and if they maintain a run of no 'bad' results for the final three events then they should qualify for the grand final. However, as we know, all it can take is one crash for it all to turn pear shaped.

Rockwool Denmark and France both sit just nine points behind Los Gallos and a good run in Halifax for either of those teams could see them close the gap heading into the penultimate event in New York later in June. Even the Canadians are still in with an outside chance of qualifying but they really need to win here in Halifax. In fact, apart from their last race in Bermuda, the Canadians were looking really good. So the race for third place is still well and truly on which is exciting.

But it's the Aussies that still pose the greatest threat to the current front-runners, the New Zealand Black Foils.. An error in their configuration on the second day of racing in Bermuda was not picked up by the tech team until much later on, meaning their daggerboard settings were set up for the high speed foils rather than the low speed foils.

They also had a rudder that was incorrectly finished and was ventilating whenever it was close to the water surface which meant they were forced to fly more than 10 cm lower in the water than they should've been all day. Their boat speed suffered massively as a result and they were compromised for that entire day of racing, yet they still finished third. So having fixed these issues, I expect them to come out strong here in Halifax. In my opinion they are still the team to beat, especially in the grand final in San Francisco. What a feat it would be to win four in a row! If that was to happen, I suspect it would be a very long time before that was equaled.

New Zealand are well aware of the threat Team Australia pose; they're currently leading the series but their Achilles heel is their starts.

Their strength is that they have the speed and sailing ability to work their way back into contention from a poor start but they wouldn't want to be relying on that in the Grand Final in San Francisco. I suspect they'll be working hard to improve their starts to give themselves a better chance of beating a full strength Australian team in the expected strong winds in San Francisco.

Conditions for the weekend are looking light to moderate with Northerly winds of around 10-12 knots both days. That wind strength coupled with smooth waters, provides conditions that look remarkably similar to Bermuda.

I'm therefore picking Canada, Spain, New Zealand and Australia to be the most likely teams to make it onto the podium but whatever happens it promises to be a fascinating weekend of racing in front of a hugely enthusiastic crowd.

And regardless of who wins, the Inspire program is engaging more than 500 young people here in Halifax. How good is that for advancing the sport of sailing!

The Rockwool Canada Sail Grand Prix | Halifax takes place on June 1-2 kicking off at 1900hrs UTC

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