There’s a great phrase often used in sports that: “It’s not the team with the best players that win. It’s the players with the best team that wins.” And that’s true in the America’s Cup. The number of all-star AC teams that have been thrown together in the past but just didn’t quite make it are long and storied. British teams are world class, weapons-grade even, at collecting unbelievable talent and falling short. Go back to the days of Lawrie Smith, Phil Crebbin, Chris Law and Harold Cudmore and by rights and on paper, history should have been written. But it wasn’t. And the aftermath was anything but pretty.
Today, the British Team have the greatest chance ever – although we do seem to say that about every America’s Cup team that heralds from these parts – but I am starting to believe it now. Talent being squarely backed by the open chequebooks of a group of businessmen enjoying their play time in global sport at just the right time is tantalising. Timing is…everything.
Jim Ratcliffe sat beside Toto Wolff in the coveted control position inside his one third-owned Mercedes Formula 1 pit bay recently in Barcelona before hitting the podium to be doused in champagne by Sir Lewis Hamilton. Beats the tow-in having being eliminated from the Cup by a fair margin but in throwing more cash at the problem, the situation simply has to and will reverse. Ineos Team UK will win the America’s Cup – and that’s not just my opinion but the opinion of many right in the know at the America’s Cup. It’s a wall of money, a tsunami, a Japanese-cartoon-esque tidal wave at a time when bottom-lines are under more scrutiny than ever before. It simply will happen. Believe it.
But the key thing that wins Cups is people. Design is people-led. Operations are people-led. Shore crew are people (although some are robots) and the sailors are, mostly, human. The problem with people though is that they need managing. They need corralling. They need inspiring and they need to feel a sense of purpose. Leadership is paramount and it’s not the day-to-day stuff that is crucial (although that’s important) in the Cup, it’s the big decisions in the split-seconds that matter.
Look at the Mercedes team and you have Wolff at the apex as CEO answerable to two owners and three fellow non execs supported by a team of unbelievable engineers that have all supped the Kool-Aid and could jump into the boss’s shoes at a moment’s notice. But it’s Toto Wolff who is the one in the hot seat, who bangs heads together when his drivers have a coming to, who nurtures the egos and massages the issues and the media to deliver such a cohesive, dominant, winning machine. He’s not doing that from the cockpit of the car. He’s what us sailors call ‘shoreside’ and that’s the person missing from the Ineos set-up.
My friend, ‘Chairman’ Tom Ehman made a good call on the excellent Sailing Illustrated podcast recently (you must watch it) that Ineos should be dialling the number of Russell Coutts and securing his services. Larry Ellison might be mad as hell and Russell is on a pretty sweet gig running the Sail GP bonanza at the moment, but that’s the deal that wins the Cup for the UK. That’s the deal that takes the pressure off the sailing team and allows them to concentrate on the task in hand. That’s the deal that simply has to be done.
But if Russell were to do it, then he has to be more visible than Grant Simmer was in the last campaign. Sending Ben up to the podium when things were going wrong was admirable on the skipper’s part but ultimately the wrong decision and sent a signal that was not the one intended. The ‘team’ bit got lost in delivery and translation and Ben looked hung out to dry – although the very facts may well differ. Russell runs rings around the media. I’ve never met a better manipulator of wordsmiths in any sport. He’s utterly formidable and bordering on genius. It would be the signing of all signings.
And as a comparison, if Sir Lewis was having a bad run with engine reliability, you can be damn sure that it would be the engineers and Toto Wolff squarely on our screens. The emotions run too high with the sportsmen and frustration doesn’t sell the Mercedes brand. Logic, determination to work through every issue, a promise to be better, a re-doubling of efforts – these are the words that are imparted by effective senior managers whose jobs ultimately are on the line and who the backers put their faith in. Collective responsibility is shared with class and it works. Sportsmen simply can’t and shouldn’t have to do it.
The Mercedes F1 drivers, just like the AC pilots, have enough going on with their own performance to have to worry about the media when things go badly wrong. You see managers in other sports protecting their players and my sense was that Ben just didn’t have that support at a top level. It got better when Giles Scott was introduced as he was no-nonsense and gave a real edge to the press conferences. Freddie Carr was a media sensation all round and would have been a fearsome interviewee when things were going wrong. Why not share the load? It’s a team after all…
One curious side show in the current Formula 1 season is the faltering number two driver at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas, who is having a shocker. Waiting in the wings, ever-present and exuding impatience to be anointed, is young George Russell currently loaned out to the Williams Team, biding his time, learning his craft but nailed-on guaranteed a place in the senior team next season. It’s intriguing to watch.
In Cup terms, Paul Goodison we would like to think, was loaned out to the American Magic Team for the last cycle and is now being brought back into the Ineos fold. That’s not the truth of the matter. The simple fact was that Goody was good enough for Ineos last time but they couldn’t make him fit. Again, a poor decision but Goodison went on to build a very big reputation for excellence in Auckland with the New York Yacht Club.
But now the Ineos elastic is snapping him back as he’s announced as the helm for the British Sail GP Team for the next two regattas in Italy and…wait for it…Plymouth. Heh? A home event without Captain Fantastic? The Guv’nor (hate that divisive, hierarchal, hackneyed moniker – it must be dropped and consigned the dustbin of history) absent for his beauty parade before adoring crowds citing ‘long-standing personal commitments’ – wow. That is something. I hope it’s nothing serious because that’s seismic and moving forward from the personal aspect, it’s fascinating.
A dynamite showing from Goodison could be the springboard to something else. Ben was electric by the end of the regatta in Bermuda so the marker is down but Goody is pure, unadulterated talent in foiling classes (and not too shabby in Lasers either) and it’s great news to see him get the nod.
Looking even further forward, could we see a challenge for the British hotseat at the next Cup? A bit of healthy competition for Ben would be a good (Goody) thing. Life is all about taking your chances as they are presented. This is the shot of a lifetime for Goodison and the Sail GP series just got one whole lot more interesting and relevant.
All eyes on Italy and Plymouth. All eyes on Goodison and listen out for the Russell rumour-mill gathering pace. And all eyes on the team forming that will win the next America’s Cup.
You read that right.