Wow. Just wow. Team Ineos progresses directly through to the Prada Cup final after the most thrilling race of this America’s Cup. It was a devastating performance by Ben Ainslie and his team of whooping lions who battled serious issues before the start with their cunningham or ‘sly-pig’ as we all know it (work it out if you don’t), seriously compromising their rig power especially downwind. But it was a masterclass of phase play on the shifts once again by Ben and Giles Scott who faced down an aggressive Jimmy Spithill who was clearly up for a fight, pulling every trick in the match-racing playbook to try and force penalty after penalty.
Prada looked rapid in a straight line but they simply couldn’t functionally sail the boat smoothly and the communications deficiencies were brutally exposed in the white-hot heat of battle against the best sailors in the tournament. In total we saw nine lead changes. Nine. Think about that. In the America’s Cup of old, you were lucky to get one. This was stunning racing.
Right off the start, Prada looked ragged. A small mis-timing gave the initial advantage to Ineos and Ainslie just nailed it. Give Ben an inch and he takes a mile but this was super-close racing and half way up the beat as the boats drag raced up on starboard desperately close, Spithill went for the first aggressive move. A big luff forced Ineos off to the right boundary but as the windward mark loomed, Prada made a terrible series of tacks and Ineos snuck under to get the overlap at the left gate and take a 2 second advantage.
Prada’s comms problems and this ridiculous dual helm system equalled slow board drops and at this level, it’s a serious handbrake. Quite simply, they have to change this system to have any chance against American Magic next weekend.
Downwind, with Ineos effectively at a power disadvantage with the cunningham fixed at a setting that Ben described as “just about right for upwind” it was all on Bleddyn Mon to try and work the main and stay in the game. He did an outstanding job. The lead jumped to 9 seconds. But on the second beat, it was a big shift at the bottom of the course that saw Prada sneak through on a big righty. By mark 3, Prada had negated the 9 seconds deficit and snatched a further 19 seconds and looked in a commanding position. It was hide-behind-the-sofa-time. Supporting Ineos isn’t for the feint-hearted.
Ineos kept it close though, calling the run to perfection and by the final leeward gate, the delta was just 10 seconds and it was all on. Both boats took the left hand gate (looking down the course) but crucially Ainslie called for a tough move. A move that Prada just couldn’t or wouldn’t match. A round up and immediate tack to get out of phase was a masterstroke and the crew executed it to perfection. Ineos lit the afterburner out to the left hand boundary, wrong-footing Prada who tactically looked all over the shop. Advantage Ineos. Brilliant.
With the wind up and down and banging around the dial as the south westerly filtered over the land, Prada miraculously narrowed the delta to just one second at the final gate, testament to their outright speed, and it was nail-biting stuff on the final run to the finish. This is where the tactician position was so crucial. Mapping out that final leg, it actually looked like a mis-step from Scott who was forced to call a cross on starboard meaning that Ineos, with a power disadvantage would have to nail the final cross when they came back on port gybe.
It was as tense as it could possibly be as both boats went into the crucial final, meaningful gybe. The television camera angles seemed to suggest an initial Prada advantage but as both boats came together and soaked down, Spithill was desperately trying to force a penalty. Cool heads were required on Ineos, holding their line and they called it beautifully, holding their nerve at break-neck speed. The judgement was incredible. Spot on. Spithill, knowing that the game was effectively up, went for an Oscar with a hard luff on the stern wash to try and kid the umpires but no penalty was called and Ineos was on the fast track runway to glory.
It was electric, brilliant sailing and match-racing of the highest order. Ineos hit a top speed of 50.29 knots as they recorded a flattering 33 second win after Prada horlicks’d their final gybe. As they crossed the line, whoops from the grinders were muted by Ben calling for his team to “calm down, boys” but I think we can give them that. It’s a turnaround out of the top drawer and after the pantomime of a ghost race to record the phantom win over American Magic, Jim Ratcliffe stepped aboard and the champagne flowed. These are the promised uplands that looked so distant back in December. It is one of the great sporting comebacks and all credit to the team.
For Prada it’s a case of how long can they go on ignoring the issues. How long will Patrizio Bertelli allow this situation to go on for? Big questions. They are close. So desperately close. But it’s the co-ordination and communications that simply have to change unless they want to take an early bath in this cycle. The boat is rapid, of that there is no doubt but it’s the little errors creeping in and the tactical mis-steps caused by the dual-helm system that is letting them down right at the key moments when it matters most. Fine margins but they need to find a new way of sailing and reset the team before next weekend or they will be out. No question.
Ineos meanwhile have the luxury of a well-deserved pass into the Prada Cup Final. They performed magnificently. The hunger and desire is there to see and they just need to find those small performance gains in boatspeed now to go deep in the competition. The really smart money is on a final against Magic. If it’s a Prada final, Ineos can look forward to facing off against the Kiwis – and that’s a whole other shooting match.
Amazing scenes and as Ben said, “that one was for the fans.” It certainly was and the whole of Britain is waking up from their dreams this morning and entering a wonderland where Britain could, just could, be on the cusp of one of the greatest sporting victories of our lifetime. Whisper it quietly, but if they keep performing like this on the water and they make the gains in the boat required, then this could be all on for the America’s Cup match in March.
Wow. Just wow.