Tear up the betting slips. Re-calibrate the spreads. We have a match in the Match and it’s a game of high precision and execution – just what top level sport should be all about. Make the slightest mistake, the tiniest slip and you’re toast. There’s zero room for show boating, no place for the ring rusty, the America’s Cup is on a knife edge with race wins shared after two absolute masterclass performances from both teams befitting the pinnacle of sailing and showcasing the competition so magnificently. The sailors on both teams were the winners today – the stars of the show, the superstars of our sport. As spectators we were treated to such a marvellous expression of everything this competition stands for as Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa both showed their form, their class, their strengths, their weaknesses and made this contest now too close to call.
As we saw in the Prada Cup Final, winning the start is looking like the key to everything and it all comes down to the set up and the final 60 seconds to the line. A small mis-calculation and although it seems silly to say with six legs to go, it feels like game over as both teams are racing at such a high level tactically that passing lanes are simply not offered up and crew errors aren’t apparent.
Luna Rossa looks marginally faster through the tacks. Team New Zealand looks quick downwind. Upwind there’s nothing to choose between them in a straight line and both boats have all the tricks in their armoury. Everything is on the start and the analogy with Formula One is spot on.
The finest of fine margins was the determinant today and Team New Zealand now know the level they’ve got to step up to if they are to defend this Cup. The momentum and psychological edge is with Luna Rossa with the win in the second race absolutely critical. It was a serious marker of intent under intense pressure but it proved they could take it and with Spithill gaining in confidence having nailed the pre-start after a mess of a dance in the first race, he’s going to be tough to beat. Italy can start dreaming. The Kiwis are beatable and this is the best chance of Italian glory in a lifetime.
Under leaden autumnal skies and a 12-13 knot breeze funnelling pretty consistently down Course E, the exposed outer course near Maraetai, the opening race revealed much. Pete Burling came into the start box with real intent and set up to match the Luna Rossa trick of the high-slow mode on the trail back with both boats early. To shed some speed in the final seconds both boats dialled down the line but whether the timing software was marginally off on Luna Rossa or whether it was simply a mis-judgement was hard to tell as the Italians stayed lower for longer, giving the Kiwis the opportunity to, in a split second, head up and hold a boatlength to windward advantage as the gun fired.
That was all they needed. Luna Rossa was pegged to leeward and within 20 seconds, Spithill was calling a desperate lunge luff that Team New Zealand just responded to and brushed off. As two prizefighters eyeing off, it was an opening salvo that lacked bite and power but crucially gave the Kiwis at least a one hundred metre advantage from which they never looked back.
After a sighter of a first leg where the two key questions were being thoroughly checked out – who tacked faster, who had straight line speed – the Kiwis got the answers and decided that running, hiding and sailing their own race was preferable to a fist fight on the boundaries. They eased away but the elastic was far tighter than the pre Christmas regatta with no quarter being given by the Italians and a 31 second final delta flattered to deceive. Te Rehutai didn’t have the speed to burn as expected. Luna Rossa has stepped up and if truth be told, the Kiwis were relieved more than elated with the win as the onboard interviews revealed.
Race two and the truth of this America’s Cup final came to bear. There is literally nothing in this. Spithill came back into the start box with renewed confidence and that’s dangerous. This time he was in no mood for error and made no mistake as the Kiwis split on the boundary to take the high ground and adopt the high push manoeuvre whilst the Italians set up for a standard gybe and trail back into the line in the lead position. Burling accepted the pressure but couldn’t execute and it was a classic simulator playbook that was exacerbated by a tiny left hand shift as the line approached.
The Kiwis were a day late and a dollar short and that was pretty much the tale of the race. Luna Rossa came off the line and tacked them to oblivion to stretch out into a 200 metre lead that they held solid until a curious JK (or ‘Eagle’) at mark four that opened the door for the Kiwis to come back. Such are the fine margins, it was a wake up call to the Italians who know that they simply can’t afford to give an inch – the Kiwis came back, closed up on leg five, closed further on leg six downwind but ran out of runway and succumbed to a seven second defeat. Luna Rossa won’t be making that mistake again.
With the crew whooping as the finishing tape was broken more out of tension-relief than real joy, you could feel the pendulum swinging. Luna Rossa are right in this and both teams know what it’s going to take to win. Everything was revealed. The debrief would have been fascinating. The tactics are now clear. Gameplans can be set in stone. Rules of engagement can be drummed in. This is going to be desperately close and the stage is set for the mother of all sporting contests. It’s all on the water now where it should be and the winner will be the one with the best execution.
On paper it’s one-all. In reality it’s advantage Luna Rossa.