The build up to the Sydney SailGP has been impressive. The sailors, shore teams and organisers seem all to be well into their stride and its a commanding stride. The format is undeniably successful and there’s a surety now that this series is not only on the right path but actually is the right path for the very best in our sport. That’s the hardest thing to nail – pro-sailors are an insecure lot, watching over their shoulder as to what the others are doing, determined to be seen at all the best regattas and all the best places. SailGP is where it’s at right now and every sailor with Cup ambition is in the mix – well nearly all.
The overall spectacle is mightily impressive, colourful, youthful and dynamic. It’s connecting all the right dots in its media presentation and engaging with the locals wherever in the world that may be. Sydney is the latest stop-over and it’s a hard place to find a poor camera angle – the boats glisten beneath cloudless skies and gorgeous sunshine throwing up acres of spray as they barrel forward at the apex of circuit racing in our fabulous sport. Better ambassadors you couldn’t wish to find. Inspirational stuff. And the on-the-water action hasn’t disappointed. As grand prix formats go, SailGP and especially SailGP in Sydney, has it all.
After day one, what have we learned? Well, just like it should be, make a mistake and you’re toast. We can expect that to get ever more prevalent as the sailors get better and fine margins start to decide winners, losers and crashers. We had a photo finish, we saw the cream rising and we saw the result of high-level equipment sport when it doesn’t quite go right. Nathan Outteridge looked fast and classy in the medium conditions, Jimmy Spithill looked slick and competitive, Tom Slingsby punched our usual ticket on the roller-coaster, the Kiwis are a strange conundrum and Phil Robertson showed us what a young team can do.
The headlines are hogged by a monster, horror Ben Ainslie mis-calculation that chopped the bow off Nathan Outteridge’s starboard hull ahead of race three. Oh the drama. Six points were deducted by the race director and the text messages started – “he’s too old,” “what’s he doing,” “he should be black flagged from the event.” Nonsense. It’s a racing incident. Ben was pushing it, the boat got loose and high, the result was ugly. It happens week in, week out at every grand prix from superbikes to F1. As spectators, we’d better get used to this. Inches matter, judgement is pushed and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I feel for Ben on this one.
Nathan Otteridge, quite rightly, was fuming at his nemesis in Ainslie and it’s easy to see how these two will be media-depicted in the coming years ahead of the Cup on this circuit. It’s an obvious spat to pick as Nathan’s a competitive, no-nonsense soul that refuses to bow to the Ainslie stardust. They don’t see eye-to-eye and this crash, just as Nathan was really starting to get his mojo, is a further souring of relations. From the Japanese/Kiwi perspective it’s oil on the flames and a harsh blow to what was looking like a great regatta. Outteridge has his tail up with the Team New Zealand contract in his pocket and there will be words for sure. This wasn’t in the script and you rather suspect the ramifications will linger. That’s sport. Great isn’t it?
But after day one, it’s the young Spaniards topping the table led by Phil Robertson but with some real firepower giving chase – Slingsby’s in second, Spithill in third and you’ve got to think that experience will count. Or will it? Robertson’s been a coming force and has a pretty sound team of Florian Trittel, Diego Botin, Joan Cardona, Mateu Barber and Andrea Emone who are making it happen in what looks like the tightest of grand prix’s of the season. Believe in youth. I keep saying it.
Tom Slingsby’s the hot favourite and local connection but gosh he’s a hard watch. One minute he’s trundling along in eighth place with the world on his shoulders, the next he’s inside at a mark, nailing the shifts and sneaking through. He doesn’t have a compass onboard, he’s got a game of snakes and ladders on the display. They may as well throw away the carbon steering gear and install a roulette wheel instead. But you just can’t help but watch him and that’s what makes him truly great – off the starting line, I’m immediately looking for Slingers in the same way that I’m always watching Lewis Hamilton in motorsport or Julian Alaphilippe or Filippo Ganna in cycling. These are the ones that set things alight. You just can’t help it.
The curiosity however is the Kiwis. Pete Burling on drive, Blair Tuke, Josh Junior, Andy Maloney, Marcus Hansen and Liv Mackay in the crew – that’s about as good a dream-team as you can wish for. That’s Team New Zealand in a nutshell but what’s happening? Pete seems low on confidence and prone to costly errors despite having Glenn Ashby in town doing some training. It’s odd and you rather wonder whether the loss of the TNZ helming role and distractions off the water are hampering efforts. They’re too good on paper to be turning in performances like they are and I wonder what the catalyst will be to change. Next season will be interesting.
Jimmy Spithill meanwhile is looking mean. He’s leading the team that’s a coming force. They’re the grinders of SailGP, quietly moving forward but looking strong for the million dollar shoot-out in San Francisco. It could be one of the most perfect timed-runs ever and Jimmy’s relentless competitiveness is looking like a long-term uptrend. The all-star team of Paul Campbell-James, Rome Kirby, Andrew Campbell, Cooper Dressler and Anna Weiss are clicking now so don’t be surprised if it’s Jimmy’s bank account that is the one with the big zeroes come March 2022. Fascinating to watch.
Christmas may well be just a short hop away but SailGP is serving up anything but a turkey. This is a feast with all the trimmings. It’s a repast to savour and it’s only getting better and better.
SailGP is where it’s at.