I think it was Franklin Roosevelt that said the line: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future,” and everywhere you look in the sport of sailing at the moment, there’s a changing of the guard. Yesterday we saw a number of the fabulous GBR Olympic Squad, the likes of Luke Patience, Hannah Mills and Giles Scott, wonderful be-medalled Olympians, hang up their wetsuits. Meanwhile on the podium at the Societe Nautique de Geneve, we saw Arnaud Psarofaghis and Brian Mettraux humbly accept the baton being passed by Ernesto Bertarelli and the Olympic legend that is Hans-Peter Steinacher, to be the poster boys of the Alinghi Red Bull Challenge.
It’s a necessary changing of the guard. The boats are getting faster. The reaction times and the fitness required are off the scale. Try playing a computer game or any sport that requires skill over muscle against a 14 year old and you’ll know what I mean – they’re just plain faster, more concentrated, nimble, dextrous.
But for Alinghi it’s a gamble, a calculated gamble by Ernesto, with everyone asking the question: “what has he seen that he’s convinced him to go again in the America’s Cup?” The answer is youthful talent emerging. He’s watched and supported Psarofaghis and Mettraux alongside sailors like Timothe Lapauw, and Nicolas Charbonnier coming through the GC32, International Moth and D35 ranks and is convinced that their time in the big time is now. He’s believing in youth and backing them full square in the big league – can you imagine what the Alinghi Red Bull Youth and Women’s team will be like? Off the scale.
The nationality rule, for certain, was an issue for the team. All summer there have been rumours of clandestine meetings on the Lake with every one of the top SailGP guns-for-hire whilst they were in Europe supposedly making the trip to see Ernesto or associates. We’ll never know the absolute truth on that, but meetings happened for sure.
Pete Burling & Blair Tuke were, and still are, hot favourites to join. Tom Slingsby has to be in the mix somewhere along the path too, but on the face of it and barring any highly unlikely amends, this is a pure Swiss challenge with the beating heart of the team heralding from the Cantons. Yes there’s support and guidance from afar, and there’ll be plenty more in short order, but this is all to aid the Swiss sailors actually on the boat to perform at the highest level. It’s the huge unknown of AC37 with many commentators saying that the performance level required is equivalent to Alinghi Red Bull Racing climbing the Matterhorn – barefoot.
What we can be absolutely sure of is that they will be pushing every boundary of both the design and sailing programme. That’s the Alinghi way. The team will have a boat, rumoured to be Team New Zealand’s Boat 1 Te Aihe, to get sailing as soon as the window opens for new challengers next June and from there it’s the steepest of learning curves for everyone involved.
The big names of SailGP are certainly ahead in terms of racing – and we’ve seen just how on or off those boats and the sailors can be on simple rig tune alone, but what’s fascinating is to see the transfer of skills from the GC32’s where Alinghi is dominant, and how that translates into AC75 performance. And remember Psarofaghis did a pretty fine job when he took the wheel of the New Zealand SailGP entry – he’s a top talent – and he’s a Moth European Champion to boot. Believe in youth.
And the interesting brains-trust of Hans-Peter Steinacher is another ace in the pack for Ernesto. Personally I didn’t pay too much attention, much to my regret, to the Tornado class back in the days of covering the Olympics in the early 2000’s as it was pretty much a closed deal to my eye. Roman Hagara and Peter Steinacher just topped the tables at pretty much every event. Darren Bundock and Mitch Booth gave chase but it was the Hagara/Steinacher pairing that just always seemed to come out on top. It was only later that my interest was piqued as I was told that they had effectively re-invented Tornado sailing through the use of innovative sail cuts to power the boat differently. This attention to detail put them a class apart and it was no surprise to see them absolutely dominant in Sydney and Athens according to those that really knew.
Steinacher, a licensed pilot, will bring that skill to the Cup and it’s a rare computational, innovative talent that he has. Modest, reserved, polite on the outside, Steinacher has a will to win that is remarkable. Fuse that kind of talent with engineering and aero brains from Red Bull plus the respect he will garner from a young team desperate to impress and you have a pretty potent elixir to climb that Matterhorn of performance. Furthermore, Alinghi Red Bull Racing brought to the podium Pierre-Yves Jorand who has been a mainstay of Alinghi’s success for what seems like forever.
Pierre-Yves was the first skier to go through the 200km/h barrier so foiling boats at 50 knots is but a stroll in the Swiss hills. But what he brings to the table is deep performance analysis and an attention to detail that marries perfectly with Steinacher. These two will be the link to the engineers and the sporting team whilst Marcelo Botin, rumoured to be the Chief Designer alongside Nick Holroyd, will rely on the input of these two as the development cycle kicks off post the boat launch. You can see how this is all coming together and how well-thought-through the challenge is.
People are the key to winning an America’s Cup – I’ve heard that said by everyone from Grant Dalton to Russell Coutts to Ben Ainslie to Larry Ellison to Dennis Conner – and they are right, but there’s also the undeniable phenomenon of people winning when it’s ‘their time.’
Hard yards have to be expended to reach the pinnacle and then the environment, the money, the design, the mechatronics, the peer group of sailors, all has to come together like a constellation amassing into a force. The big bang needs to happen in unison – go back to the Coutts era and that ‘tight five’ which extended to a team of 120. It was their time. Look at Team New Zealand in the last Cup – it was their time with brilliance in every department. Go back to Stars & Stripes, Australia II or the Oracle USA teams and there, in every department was utter brilliance at the very top of their game. It was no surprise, in hindsight, that they won. Who’s time is it now? Ben Ainslie and Giles Scott? That’s where all the betting is right now. We shall see.
Alinghi Red Bull Racing has it all on to eke the performance gains but be in no doubt that they are un-fazed by what’s before them, or the competition amassed, and their starting place is a powerful platform of design, engineering, boat-building and sailing talent. The team looks, to the untrained eye, like a gamble on youth but it’s anything but. The rest of the Cup world are running the rule and watching their every move – experienced Cup watchers know what’s coming.
It’s very much ‘Manufacture en Suisse’ and it’s a heck of a lot of talent assembling – the next Press Conference where the full team is announced will reveal far, far more.
Exciting times in Cup land. Exciting times.