Belief is a powerful force. It is hard won but easily lost. Team Ineos, against the form book and in conditions they struggle in, pulled out a win at the death – just when they needed it most to bring belief back on the table. With 5-0 etched on the scorecard, heads were down. Ineos had been outgunned, outpaced, out-thought and a whitewash was writ large on the wall.
But the mark of Ben Ainslie’s career is the comeback from certain defeat, the impossible escape, and he didn’t disappoint right at the point where all hope was seemingly lost. Bet against him at your peril. Fighting a platform that was on the back foot all day, to pull out a win required every ounce of sailing genius from not just Ben but the whole British afterguard in calling the pressure, changing the style and nailing the art of apparent wind sailing. From zeros to heroes, Team Ineos had us on a rollercoaster. Honours even. The scorecard is 5-1 and Aesop couldn’t make up this fable.
The day started with a whimper for the Lions but a resounding whinny from the Italian stallions. With all the pressure on the pre-start, Ainslie came out swinging like a prizefighter only to find his equal against the match-fit street brawler, Jimmy Spithill who had his number in the lead back to the start line. Ineos went for a curious move, trailing back into the starboard end of the line high, aiming to squeeze in at the mark. In old money it was a classic ‘barge’ and speculative at best. Desperate even. For the Italians it was ‘Grazie Mille’ as they shut the door on a big squeeze in high mode as both boats crossed early but negated their OCS’s with an inevitable penalty thrust onto Ineos by the umpires. It was the killer blow. The sort of punch that keeps a man down.
A further penalty a quarter of the way up the course set the nightmare scenario for Ineos and effectively handed the race win to the Italians. Hearts sank. Leg after leg, Prada was just relentless. It was a horizon job. A total thumping. They looked utterly magnificent and with Spithill’s heart rate barely a flicker at 79bps, it was as close to a cruise as could be imagined. Cigars all round for the Italians but desperate stuff for the British.
As a boatspeed test Luna Rossa had not just a little bit of pace but the kind of pace that depresses, deflates and defeats the opposition. It was just an awesome display of smooth sailing. Luna Rossa was rock solid in flight and tactically flawless. Faster upwind and down, the Italians were so far ahead to be in another state by the end. After all the build up, it was a moment of Italian sporting history, the most assured of performances under the severest pressure. For the Brits it was a disappointment, plain and simple. They had been mugged down a dark alley on Course E by a ruthless assailant in no mood to negotiate. But as the afternoon wore on, Ineos reset and came again.
Not only were their backs-to-the-wall, they were on their way to the airport and a flight home. Only a performance from the very top drawer would do. All the momentum was with Prada who looked utterly unstoppable but wait a moment…Ainslie and Scott regrouped and had other ideas, completely re-imagining how to sail against the rampant Italians. It was like a boxer discovering in the 10th round that if they ran and hid, the opponent would run out of gas. And in sailing terms it was a case of minimising the tacks and sailing their own race that proved so effective. Ben won the start – his first in six races – and led off to the left hand boundary forcing Prada away early. Instead of covering they took a little bit of leverage and phased into the breeze making every boatlength count. By the time they came back it was a lead as they crossed on port – the first time Luna Rossa had been headed in this Prada Cup Final.
At mark one it was an eight second advantage and with the big jib up to provide desperately needed horsepower, they could extend as Scott called in the pressure magnificently. It was 21 seconds by the leeward gate and now it was all about the loose cover, keeping the turns to a minimum, to round out mark three 18 seconds up. Then came the masterclass that we had been waiting for. The afterguard called in the pressure down the right hand side and there was little Prada could do on leg four to get anywhere close. Ineos were on fire, stretching out to a massive 32 seconds. The grinders were at 93% of max heart rate. They knew what this meant.
But the race wasn’t done. Luna Rossa is such a slippery, polished machine in these conditions that the fightback was inevitable and with a slightly more manoeuvrable set up with the smaller jib set and a foil cant system on steroids, they narrowed the gap dramatically. Cue hide-behind-the-sofa time. Ineos were just hanging on and rounded on split peel-offs at the final windward gate just 9 seconds to the good. Ineos took the left hand gate (looking up the course) to start the run to the finish and a run to destiny.
They didn’t disappoint and sailed a tactically flawless final downwind – the likes of which championship winning momentum builds from. A more perfect cover, despite the pressure building astern, you will not see in this America’s Cup and they crossed the finish line with the grinders gasping for air to record the hardest won race win of the tournament. Classic Ainslie. Genius Scott. Outstanding crew work from bow to stern.
Things change quickly in the America’s Cup. It’s never over until it’s over. As the boats dock-in tonight, Team Ineos know the level they have to perform at to scale this peak but now they know they can do it. Knowledge is powerful. They changed their playbook and they might just have accessed the DNA of how to race, and beat, the mighty looking Luna Rossa.
Working out the opponent and then changing styles is easier said than done. This is what gold medallists do. This is what sets them apart. For my money, this series is far from over. Belief just infiltrated the British camp after a torrid start but it’s there now and small acorns have a habit of growing into mighty oaks. It’s tough to call a series win from here but one race at a time, momentum will build and if the weather plays ball, we could, just could be on the cusp of something.
The Prada Cup Final just got interesting.