Captain Cook was killed on Valentine’s Day in 1779. Britain’s most famous explorer who first charted New Zealand was clubbed to death in knee-deep waters by a baying mob after capturing Hawaiian King Kalaniopuu. Not quite shallow waters but the protected inner course E was the scene of another massacre of the British as Prada, with all the pressure on them, performed on a stratospheric level to put Ineos Team UK to the sword and go 4-0 up in the Prada Cup Final.
There was no love lost between the two teams on this Valentine’s Day but it was a flawless performance from the Italians who were quite simply pitch-perfect all day. They sailed magnificently with more horsepower than a race-tuned Ferrari and sailed as cool as a Milanese fashionista. The Brits just couldn’t get in the game all day as mistakes and mis-judgements crept into their performance. It was shambolic at times if truth be told.
The racing pauses now. If it carried on logically they would be out in short order on this form. Update: since filing this story the Prada Cup has been paused due to a COVID-19 lockdown imposed on Auckland for 72 hours.
A pause, a time out, a reset is desperately needed by Ineos to arrest their decline to oblivion. And they’ve got it all on to try and save this. Whilst nothing has changed in terms of needing to win seven, as is the line of winners that have been this way before, it’s going to be the mother of all comebacks to turn this around. Three more bullets and Prada is off to face the Kiwis in the Match. It’s within touching distance now and they can smell a victory sweeter than a freshly-clipped red rose.
The tale of the tape in race one was all about the start for the Italians as Ben got greedy and went for a hook that simply was never there. Jimmy Spithill, with a boxing kangaroo etched on his right arm, just kept the speed on to lead back into the start line and with perfect time-on-distance put Ineos in dirty air and gassed them as the gun fired.
It was an airflow that Ainslie couldn’t escape from all afternoon as we saw the first real duking match-race of the summer with Prada sticking like super-glue to the Brits all the way around the course. The racing was much tighter with the boatspeeds looking closer but Prada had the licking of the Lions upwind and down and just a click of pace through the tacks and gybes – we are in marginal gains territory now and it’s all Luna Rossa.
Once ahead it was a tactical masterclass of front-running by the Italians on a processional course that offered few passing lanes but plenty of room for error. They made none and there was little Giles Scott could call to try and force Britannia back in the game. The course was obvious. The shifts were telegraphed. There were no surprises and the delta between the teams fluctuated around between 18 and 9 seconds. Small margins but a lifetime at this level. By the finish it was another win chalked on the board and a 13 second victory. Close but no cigar for Ineos.
Race two had the air of do-or-die for Ineos but they looked ring rusty and deficient of speed whilst all round their performance wreaked of desperation as unforced errors, boundary penalties and co-ordination errors thundered into their playbook. The headline grabber was in the pre-start with Ineos bucking like a bronco after a gybe at the start of the lead back drag race to the line. Memories of American Magic’s capsize flashed briefly before our eyes with the hull getting airborne as Bleddyn Mon and the flight controllers struggled to keep Britannia upright almost knocking Ben off to leeward as the mainsail was dumped as he attempted to cross the stern. The semi-crash handed all the advantage to Prada as a shaken Ineos recovered but the box seat and tactical advantage was a gift that the Italians gratefully received.
Again, the shifts were telegraphed down the course and the afterguard of Luna Rossa were in perfect phase, sailing their own race after initially keeping a tight cover. The rich got richer as a combination of boatspeed, great communication between the two helms and tactician Pietro Sibello and the slickest crew-work we have seen to date from anyone in this America’s Cup cycle just made the Italians a class act. They were virtually unbeatable and once ahead they piled on the pressure relentlessly leg after leg and by the end had a huge lead. The final delta was 41 seconds. Game over. All the aces are with Luna Rossa now.
This was a day to completely forget for Ineos Team UK, compounding a truly terrible opening weekend. Winning the series from here will be an almost impossible task. The boat doesn’t look up to scratch and the crew look like they know it. They were forcing their sailing but had nothing to play with, no advantage either upwind or down, that they could leverage off. It’s a desperate situation. You feel for them.
To beat Prada they have to go two levels up from this or it’s a nailed-on whitewash. In the coming days they have to find a leap-frog or a lightbulb moment, drawing on every ounce of the team and its structure but on the evidence presented to date in this series it’s a hope against hope. We’ve been this way many times before with Ben and it’s rare that the knighted boss makes so many mistakes that he can’t extricate himself from but he looks increasingly dejected, like he knows his number is up. And we’re starting to see a little hint of anger and a deep sense of frustration in the post-race interviews. This is a struggle. It’s a hard watch.
The writing is on the wall in letters that have just got a whole lot larger. Ineos is staring at a series defeat in this Prada Cup and they have it all on to avoid a pummelling. Four rounds are over and the scorecard doesn’t lie. Ben Ainslie is on the ropes taking a punishment beating. The towel is all but thrown in. How they are going to turn this around in the timescale is the question.
The bookies have it all Prada. But is there a twist in this tale? Win the next race, whenever that may be, and everything changes. Momentum is a funny pendulum.
(Update: sadly the Prada Cup has been postponed due to a COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland. Wednesday racing has been cancelled and the new schedule will be announced shortly. All our thoughts are with the people of Auckland. Stay safe. Sport matters little. It can wait.)
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