Superstars

Sport is about doing it when it matters. Champions are decided in key moments. Medals, championships, (local races even), are won by those who can handle the pressure. As the famous film quote goes: “Life all comes down to a few moments.” We’ve seen it time again when the red hot favourite, or the person in form, is beaten by the one with ice in his veins and a steely determination to win. In Bermuda at the opening round of the terrific Sail GP season, it was the tale of the tape – again.

©Sail GP

Acres have been written about Ben Ainslie over the course of his sailing career, and rightly so, for he is the one person that you would trust to sail for your life. Some, like my friend Tom Ehman, say Pete Burling is better of the current generation. I disagree. Ainslie is on another planet and only Paul Elvstrom in his prime was the closest. The trait they share is that in pure sailing terms, they are a generation ahead.

All the rarefied air of Ainslie & Elvstrom need is a boat (and a crew) capable of winning and they will do the rest. For sure there are others – Coutts and Conner come to mind as two who could put the whole package together in the America’s Cup – but if Ainslie continues on this path, surely at some point the design element has got to come good? He is one, maybe two, generations ahead and proved it once again out on the Great Sound in Bermuda.

As pressure masterclasses go, Ainslie did it right at the moment when it mattered most. Tom Slingsby had been the class act in the big breezes right up until he met the steely determination of the charging Brit complete with an A1 Ineos Team and the absolutely sublime Hannah Mills – who sports a silver and gold and is on the same Ainslie trajectory to sailing immortality whilst being possibly the nicest Olympian you can meet.

Slingsby was mugged. It wasn’t so much a shake-down or a pick-pocket as a gun to the temple in the medal race. After slamming a penalty on the Aussies at Mark 1, Ainslie should have been in cruise mode but the relentless Slingsby brought it back and kept the racing honest but just couldn’t eke in front and it was the Ineos works team that scored the win by just 4 seconds to take the opening round of the new season. Devastating for Slingsby but utter elation for the Brits who recovered well from an opening day where the boat was set up wrong and everything seemed against them.

©Sail GP

For the rest of the fleet, it was a case of head scratching and ‘what-might-have-been’ as the big breezes caught them on the hop and as a season opener goes it was high octane stuff with speeds regularly surpassing the 50 knot sound barrier. Jimmy Spithill had an unadulterated nightmare weekend with a collision with the Japanese and subsequent capsize, the icing on a pretty naff cake. The Kiwis, replete with the Burling/Tuke dream team seemed to be in catch-up mode and never really got in the groove after a week of Covid-induced boat preparation issues, a hydraulic issue on Saturday and then some uncharacteristic errors creeping in on the Sunday. They will be back.

The nice surprise, although on investigation no surprise, was to see the French up in the chocolates. We miss the French in the America’s Cup and they are too good a sailing nation to sit out the next one. Billy Besson is a class act having grown up in French Polynesia before winning both the Dart 18 and F18 world championships and then progressing as all ambitious Gallic sailors do to the maxi tris of Sodebo and Banque Populaire. They were rapid all weekend and rounded out with a deserved podium.

©Sail GP

So the first round is over and as a flavour of things to come it was electric. The season promises much. It’s true grand prix racing and as a filler for the vacuum that the Cup leaves, it is perfect. We can see the form. We can see the direction of travel and we can read the tea leaves of what the next Cup will be like. Everyone knows who the man to beat is but for sure the Slingsby/Burling/Spithill superstars amongst others will all be primed for the podium as the season progresses with a few surprises along the way – there are plenty from top to bottom who can challenge.

How it all translates into the Cup arena is a whole other story and we can only hope that Ben gets the right management structure in place with the right designers to have a proper tilt at winning the damn thing. The talent is undeniably there in the sailing department as is the money, it’s the rest of the package that needs sorting urgently. Blind alleys and excuses won’t cut it any longer. Delivery needs to be strong.

But just like Elvstrom before him and the modern-era Gods of the Cup, give Ainslie an equal or edgier vessel and the Cup will be winging its way to the UK before this generation is out. Deliver another donkey and the long wait continues…

7 thoughts on “Superstars

  1. We have seen it in F1 racing time after time . . . Put the greatest driver in the world in a slow car and he will go nowhere fast.

    We have the driver, now we have to build the boat, a proper one, not another Lego kit.

    The door is closing fast. Ainslie will not be around – at this level – for ever and there is no second.

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  2. What a fantastic weekend! Yes, not being able to watch Friday live was disappointing, they need to sort out what unit they will use to display speeds, and it’s a bummer none of the women were ready for this Grand Prix, but aside from those problems… it was amazing!

    It’s so great to have SailGP back, Bermuda looks as beautiful in the footage as ever (I really want to visit someday), and holy crumbs that was some quick and close racing between the 8 F-50s.

    The new New Zealand boat looks great and I like that the more colorful liveries in SailGP mean that black could be reserved for the country whose national color actually IS black. (Somebody please tell the AC that there are colors besides black, gray, and red.) The new British livery looks leagues better than the black one they had in Sydney, if not quite as perfect as their ultra-classy gray-and-Union-Jack “airmail” look from 2019. I think the Spanish use of Míro’s sun was a good idea but the execution is a bit lacking, they’re my least favorite sail livery this year so far.

    I would disagree with your “mugging” assessment, while GBR won again, I think the Australians put up a much closer fight than they did at Sydney 2020, and overall we saw that it wasn’t quite as easy for GBR to dominate here as it was there. Ainslie is definitely top-level, but the other helms are, too, and I think with a little more practice Spithill and Burling will catch up quickly— even after one day of racing New Zealand seemed to improve tremendously.

    As a Team France fan, I was so thrilled to see them race so well and make the podium, I don’t think anyone would have expected to see that in Season 1. Bravo, Billy!

    Disappointing to see Team Japan put out of commission by the crash, I think if they had been able to keep racing we might have seen Nathan in the final instead of Ben, but c’est la vie.

    With no US East Coast Grand Prix this season, I don’t think I’ll get to attend any of the events in person, but I’m absolutely going to be watching online. Season 2 looks great!

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  3. Oh man, I wrote out a whole long comment about everything I liked about the Bermuda Grand Prix this weekend, don’t tell me the software ate it…

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  4. Lestor Piggot talks to horses and Ben Ainslie talks to yachts. Yes, Peter Burling is not as uber-talented but he seems to be kind to his yachts. I think Ben is outstanding in races that allow bumpa boats to compete but the way Peter keeps clear of other boats is otherworldly. Nathan Outridge showed what happens if you don’t keep clear. That small mistake will prove expensive on many levels.

    Also, those three small letters in front of Ben’s name seem weighty.

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    1. It’s interesting when people who have titles choose to use them and when they don’t, I noticed that in the credits for the “Racing on the Edge” documentaries Ainslie was just listed as “Ben Ainslie” but Coutts had the full “Sir Russell Coutts”. I wonder if that was their choice or the producers’? All sorts of psychoanalysis we could do if it was their decision…

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    2. Also, I do think Burling *is* uber-talented, but his career structure has been more wide-ranging, with wins or podium finishes in the past few years in several very different kinds of racing, whereas Ainslie has been extremely successful in a narrower niche. The classic “scalpel or Swiss Army knife” comparison.

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