“You’ve got to be pretty close to the bullseye when you’re throwing your darts at a development class dartboard,” according to a yacht designer friend who has been involved in the grand prix scene for the past couple of decades. And he’s right. Throw those darts like a drunk in the pub at the end of the evening and you end up with something akin to the British challenge. You might luck out with a treble on the first throw with the hull design but you’re off the board on foils, sails and rigs and it doesn’t matter how much money you have in your bank account, you’re going home. The evening’s over. Meanwhile those that invented the rules and set the oche just right are throwing bullies like Eric Bristow long into the early hours and one of them is Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor in his prime.
But to straighten up the board, set it at the right height, measure the distance accurately and allow everyone to throw with the same arrows is back in the media today with Ben Ainslie calling for an independent management structure to run future Cups. He’s absolutely right and no doubt a tad angry at how this event has all panned out now that cold hard reality has bitten and the debrief has concluded. But will it happen? Will a Bernie Ecclestone figure step forward with cash, vision, a rhinocerous-thick skin and more political skills than the United Nations Secretary General to grab this Cup and shake it to its core?
It’s very clear that Jim Ratcliffe’s involvement going forward is predicated on structural change in the competition to give Challengers a chance to at least get somewhere near the bullseye on their first, second or, in the case of Ainslie, third throws. At the moment, challenging for the Cup is a blind man’s folly. Throw a worldwide pandemic into the mix with the chances of a global series utopia slim to none and you could understand if a gazillionaire chose to ‘sit the next one out’ – Bertarelli’s sat out two Cups now. Not even he thinks he can skew the odds in his favour.
Watching the post-Prada Cup wash-up interviews with the Ineos management and there’s a very decent argument around the World Series events being cancelled which dis-allowed the team to check in on their speed. The logic here being that if they had known at say, Cagliari in April 2020 or Portsmouth in June 2020 that they had speed deficiencies then the development curve that the team could have enacted due to the syndicate’s massive resources would have meant that by the time they got to Auckland in December, they would have avoided the horror show they endured. I’ll buy that. Luna Rossa also looked pretty shaky when they arrived at that regatta and got absolutely schooled by Team New Zealand on both the opening and closing days, scored one win on American Magic and thumped Ineos twice. They didn’t look in it but in fighting parlance they were down but not out. Their development path was set. For Ineos it was panic stations and a race against the clock.
Looking at what could happen post the conclusion of this series and it’s hard to see where the change will come for Ainslie. A Kiwi win would be the best shot. Money is going to be the deciding factor with Team New Zealand run on a commercial basis and the coffers running dry almost the moment they cross the finish line. The New Zealand government are being understandably slower to join the party, sipping prosecco, chatting and flirting on the sidelines of the dancefloor whilst the brash syndicate heads are on the tables swirling their shirts above their heads saying “come to me.” A delay or a piecemeal offering, as is the sticking-plaster way with government funding, and a Jim-Ratcliffe-with-a-vision option is a tantalising prospect. The Kiwis can dance with Ben. They can waltz with Ratcliffe.
But if Luna Rossa pulls this off then the door shuts firmly on the British. Good night. All over. It’s no secret that there’s no love lost between the two teams and the chances of these two doing the last tango in Mondello at the Circolo della Vela are remote. After a quarter of a century of trying to win the Cup, there’s no way the Italians are going to be giving it up in the interests of a level playing field and attracting more entries. If the Cup goes back to a single challenger then so be it – come and race in Sardinia on our terms. I don’t blame them. The most likely outcome is an Alinghi or New York Yacht Club Challenger of Record and most probably another change in class. We could be back to spinnakers and a high-tech classics regatta in the Mediterranean. It wouldn’t be bad. It would just be different. But the structure behind the scenes will be more loaded than ever before. Politics will be the name of the game. Exit the Ratcliffe posse stage left.
There’s a lot riding on the next few days of racing. Will the Cup be something that our foiling kids will aspire to or will it be back to displacement furniture racing? The structure of sailing will be affected for a decade or more. As a parent of a teenager myself I look at what’s going to keep my son in the sport. Does he stay in low-rider dinghies and progress to keelboats like most reading this did or do I buy a Waszp or a Moth and say “go on, this is sailing now. Have the time of your life!” If I did the latter it might avoid him becoming a kiteboarder and keep him off the computer. And as he gets better and starts to look upwards at the Cup, he can see it makes sense. He’ll be talking a language of apparent wind, rake angles, foil cavitation and wands that were never in my lexicon as I learned the sport and there’s a logical pathway forwards to the pinnacle even if it’s never attained.
A Team New Zealand win is progressive. A Luna Rossa win is romantic. The future of sailing rests on this regatta. It’s as big as that.