Whilst the New Zealand government scientists scratch their heads over a lack of genomic data with the new virus outbreak in South Auckland, the Ineos data scientists are scratching theirs at how to get Britannia back on a par with Luna Rossa. In a straight line the Brits are close but out of the tacks they are sailing initially lower and losing valuable pace. That’s the problem, now find the solution. And that’s the game.
It’s small tweaks in performance sport that matter but the sequencing is vital. Change something here and you open up a muddle of issues there. Alter that and this needs changing too. It’s a conundrum immersed in finite, exclusive proprietary data that to get to the bottom of needs bright minds and computational power. You can bet that the issue has been thrown back to Brackley and you can just imagine the Mercedes flow team getting highly animated at having a physics problem of quantum proportions to solve. Formula 1 is dull in comparison.
And the good news coming back from Auckland that the teams will be allowed to train and work on the boats is couched in the issue that it’s blowing a hooly all week before we’re back to summer zephyrs of 10 knots by Saturday. What would be the point in Ineos getting out there and thrashing the donkey in 33 knots? Far better to sit in the shed and tweak like fury. The jobs list will be longer than the trans-Siberian pipeline but after a long period in the shed in the 20 days between the end of the Round Robins and the Final you do wonder what on earth they were playing at in that time.
Perhaps we mis-understand development classes in that speed actually improves on a linear basis in perfect symmetry with measured performance against an opposition. In which case, Prada was displaying Kim Philby-esque levels of duplicity in hiding its outright speed as the match against American Magic was akin to a Mediterranean flotilla cruise. I’m not buying the Jimmy Spithill line about that race-time being so important at a development level – but he does have a point at a crew work level.
Luna Rossa was being sailed like a bunch of weekend amateurs in the Robin Robins – and my case for this was highlighted by the comms on the gybe before THAT cross on the final leg to the finish against Ineos in the last race of the series. It was all over the place with the kind of onboard chatter that you and I conduct at the beginning of a season with two new people onboard who have never sailed before but are jolly keen, reliable, good sorts who buy their round in the bar afterwards.
Now what we see and hear is a serenity and professionalism on Luna Rossa. Calmness and confidence has taken over and that’s the influence of Philippe Presti who’s won two Finn Gold Cups and been to the Olympics twice, defining the chain of command between the two helms. A small tweak. A massive difference.
And the other big change on Luna Rossa is the racing style. The game-plan is very very simple. Win the start. Get ahead and cover like fury. You’d think that would be obvious but it’s really hard to do in practice. Spithill is treating every moment of the racecourse like it’s the medal race in an Olympic final. That means tack for tack, gybe for gybe, do not give your opponent any chance to do something different. They go right, you go right and you bounce them to oblivion on the boundary. If that means 17 tacks a leg, sorry grinders but that’s what you signed up for. Even when, in the fourth race, the most telegraphed right hand shift filtered down the course, Spithill moderated his greed and stayed in phase with Britannia. That’s really impressive and is a call of hard-won experience in this game.
For Ben Ainslie it’s a very clear scenario. The start has to be won – no question. And it’s probably not good enough to come off the line to leeward and ahead and give the right hand advantage to Prada. They don’t seem to have the inherent speed to make the first cross stick as the boats are so close in a straight line but Ineos loses the micro advantage in that first tack onto port.
Ben will need to game plan a trail back to the line and dummy a hook opportunity in the hope that Spithill at 4-0 up will go for broke. Then it’s a time on distance call to hold the windward advantage and not draw a penalty. Risky business but getting pole position with the ability to tack off early on to port and then come back on starboard is the critical dynamic and will be reliant on improvements being found by the technicians and brain boxes to get the tacking issue sorted.
Race five is, in my book, do-or-die for the Brits. Psychologically it is the power-play moment. 5-0 and heads will go down. The sinking feeling of despair, after a delay to the racing that afforded them critical time, will be palpable. But a 4-1 scoreline would be everything. Literally everything. It would restore trust in the programme. Trust in the afterguard. It would be a full-stop on the Italian momentum. Doubt would creep in to the Luna Rossa crew and it’s the unsettling thought of having Ben Ainslie and Giles Scott in your head – two gold medallists versus none. The Italians could unravel quickly. And at 4-2 the resurrection would be on.
It’s all to play for. What happens within laptops in Auckland and super-computers in Brackley in the next few days will not only decide the Prada Cup but could well decide the fate of the America’s Cup and its future.
Let’s get ready to rumble.
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