Back in 2010 a brash, confident Dave Brailsford, fresh from Olympic track cycling success made a claim that stunned the sporting world. With a multi year, big money commitment in his back-pocket from the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, Brailsford addressed the world’s media and set a goal of putting a British cyclist on the top step of the podium in the Tour de France within five years. It was as bold a statement as saying, and meaning it, that Britain will win the America’s Cup.
By 2012, Brailsford’s goal had been achieved. Multi-gold medallist Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win ‘Le Tour’ in sensational style with Team Sky, leading the best funded and most determined team in the peleton. Brailsford had instilled the same mentality of ‘marginal gains’ in the road racing team that he had employed to such great effect in his Olympic track cycling campaigns and acres of press coverage followed. History was made alongside sporting legend and knighthoods duly followed.
The theory of marginal gains was debated and discussed everywhere from university lecture halls to the boardrooms of global companies. It became the mantra of sportspeople for the next 10 years. But recently, the ever-controversial Wiggins, now ‘Sir’ Bradley, had this to say about it: “I think marginal gains are more for other people maybe to justify their jobs. Fundamentals – talent, hard work and dedication – are more important. Because that 5% on top – that’s not going to make you win if you don’t have the other 95% underneath.”
In the America’s Cup, us pundits and the wonderful, intelligent army of armchair admiral’s (that’s you!) are obsessed with marginal gains. It’s the flame that brings us moths back time and time again. The endless debates about minor improvements is a fascinating pastime.
In this cycle we are all looking for the gains being made by the teams in foils, sails, rig controls, hull shapes, electronics and crew work. We can’t help it but we are guilty of ignoring, at times, the actual sheer, raw sailing talent until we see it. Wiggins is right. Marginal gains are fine but they are next to useless if the sailors make a horlicks of it, miss the shifts, tactically underperform or sail into a wind hole. Sleeping on a pillow made of Egyptian duck or eating stewed dolphin for breakfast isn’t going to get you out of poor positional play on the racecourse.
What we saw last weekend, particularly from Team Ineos, is the talent rising. Outstanding sailing talent at the peak of their sporting hunger and physical power. Ainslie and Scott muscled that boat, most probably at a speed disadvantage all round, into unbeatable positions on the racecourse. Golfers have a theory of ‘course management’ where they limit their losses and put the ball in the right place to make the approach to the green easier. Ainslie & Scott put Britannia clear of the bunkers and made the wedge shots approaching the windward mark easier and created the gateway to the passing lanes downwind. It was course management of the highest order.
After the kicking pre-Christmas, Team Ineos went into what Ben called a ‘siege mentality’ to get the platform performing. They literally had to change everything. Everything. Quite what that says about the programme up to that point and why it was so so wrong is one for a later debate. Why the team had to call in the resources of Mercedes at the 11th hour to solve issues that could and should have been solved before is another issue. It was a poor return on both the investment from Jim Ratcliffe and the investment in time from everyone involved.
But that’s water under the bridge now. Ancient history. The fact of the matter is that by hook or by crook they got the platform back to a point where it could compete and then trusted in the talent. That’s a tactic that will take you so far in the America’s Cup but what we see time and time again is that you have to marry incredible talent at the top of their generation with a design that is one-step ahead of the competition. That’s the winning code. Ineos have 50% of it right now.
The turnaround was so spectacular, so utterly spectacular, that now all eyes are on them. If they can produce that level of performance in three short weeks, what can they do in the next month? That’s a really powerful position to be in. Closing out the other 50% and getting a boat that is actually faster is the challenge. But be in no doubt, fear is struck into Prada and that has translated into massive on-the-water colly-wobbles in the Italians.
That beautiful, well detailed, glamorous Luna Rossa is now looking like a two-bit mule against the hyper-ugly Ineos that doesn’t look like it belongs in this generation but is functional dynamite. Prada are back at the Measurement Committee still trying to hide backstays in mast fairings – it’s a nonsense marginal gain. The Lions have got them licked on the water and it has nothing to do with marginal gains but massive gains made in short order and an afterguard with a will to win.
American Magic is the deadly unknown and probably the most dangerous challenge that Ineos face. The jungle drums from the Americans is that they just want to put the boat back to the performance level of the last race against Prada. I would suggest that is a smokescreen. They will get Patriot easily back on the water but I suspect that they will have brought forward all the modifications that they had intended to make for the remainder of the Prada Cup. This is roll the dice time. All the toys will be coming out. All the mods will be on display. That’s dangerous.
But as the competition doors blow wide open for Ineos and rumours of a second campaign and a Challenger of Record status keep on swirling, they have to be on high alert and working like fury to get the boat to the next level. The spotlight is thankfully elsewhere as the Patriot rebuild progresses but be under no illusion, this competition is about to get really intense. It’s power-play for keeps.
Marginal gains won’t cut it. Massive steps are required.
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