Good news! We have racing. It was looking like a dull week of spy shots and speculation but boom, the Challengers have agreed to race the Defender on Monday and Tuesday, largely for the benefit of Race Director Iain Murray and his exemplary army of volunteers to fine tune their race management. Well that’s the spin Terry Hutchinson is quite rightly putting on it and all credit to him.
Privately though, it’s the chance for the Challengers to check in and see where the mods that they want to show stack up against Team New Zealand who have only brought onstream minor upgrades in their wing control and tidied up their tack box – as have all the rest. Will we see the fully race-tuned packages that the Challengers will measure in on Wednesday? Don’t be ridiculous. But we will see roughly where everyone is at and that’s exciting. At least to me.
The excellent Justin Mitchell, without whom us stuck a million miles away would be poorer, posted some fascinating footage on his YouTube channel overnight of all three Challengers tuning up on some practice blasts in Auckland Harbour yesterday.
It’s super difficult to gauge anything accurately but as a Brit supporter, I sit through the footage with bitten fingernails, willing Ratty’s Rita on. And they look decent. Yes, I’m still worried about speed through the tacks. I’m also fretting about outright speed. And I can’t help but think that the pencil design, when compared to the scalpel of Magic and the muscularity of Prada looks different – are they right? I am willing it to be so. I’m finding the design hard to love but two race wins on the opening day would change all that in a heartbeat – greatest design since Australia II. I’m a fickle pundit.
Team Ineos just have to score a win on the opening day on Friday. It’s paramount. Who will be the scalp? I reckon Prada as the two boats are chalk and cheese. If the weather plays ball, and I was emailed last night from an old friend in Auckland who tells me that we are expecting a building breeze of 13-18 knots with gusts of 23 knots, then it’s a full-on speed contest. Ineos was looking mighty in that kind of breeze in recent footage. Taking the Italian scalp would really put the cat amongst the pigeons. The betting would be all off.
But imagine what a win over Magic would do? Surprisingly they’ve been pulling some odd looking moves on the water, finding the limits perhaps, but are they as rock-solid as before Christmas? Well, looking at the video above, the answer is probably “yes” but doubt is creeping in at this stage. I do, however, have a strong suspicion that they will be bringing increased horsepower by the end of the week. We won’t see it in the practice races and I don’t think they will show their full sail package until the Prada Cup finals – and this is a tough call – they need to do just enough to make those finals before unleashing hell.
Ineos in comparison will be throwing all they have right now at this. New rig (which looks so much better), new sails, and hopefully the refined wing package that’s rumoured. It will be as quick as it can be for now. That’s not to say the development won’t ramp again should they get through, but right now it’s everything. And that’s just fine. It could well be enough to shake things up. We will know 20 seconds after the ‘B’ of the first Bang on Friday. We will have some ideas after the racing on Monday and Tuesday but will have the definitive answer early in the morning (for me) as Murray blasts the gun and we go racing for keeps.
As for Team New Zealand, well they will be watching like hawks. The data coming back will be invaluable. Have the Challengers gapped up or are they still right where they want them? It’s funny how, in New Zealand, most of the locals share none of the optimism that I have around this team. Perhaps it’s a Kiwi trait? The Tall Poppy Syndrome? There’s an inherent reluctance to acknowledge that this is one of the greatest sports teams on the planet today. A reticence to cheer too loudly. A nervousness even. To all my friends and readers in New Zealand: chill, relax. Your team is awesome. It’s off-the-scale. It’s the benchmark. Quite frankly, no-one is close. And they all know it.
The Kiwi sailors will go through the motions on these practice days. The computers will be whirring relentlessly. Win or lose, no sweat. And I suspect an almighty sandbag. The mother of all sandbags. This will be sandbags on steroids. Bitter experience of showing their hand too early is a lesson well learned in the land of the long white cloud. Give them enough to give hope and then mug them in March – that’s the mantra.
And I’m still calling a 7-0 blackwash in the Match. This is Team New Zealand all the way.
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