Something that struck me in the past week having been in Switzerland was the number of people wearing the Alinghi logo. Gentlemen of a certain age proudly sported the ubiquitous caps with long grey hair flowing out of the back. Some cool young board surfers did their tricks in long-sleeve Alinghi T-shirts. A lady at Geneva airport looked achingly cool in a gilet from 2003. Omega were promoting their Alinghi branded watch on a billboard out of town. Alinghi was everywhere, worn as a badge of pride, a sign of excellence. The Swiss are rightly proud of their national team and it seems to have transcended the sport of sailing to become a mainstream brand. Interesting.
And with Alinghi fusing Red Bull into their logo it’s suddenly a potent mix. Red Bull stands for life and sport at the extreme of endeavour and its whole approach to marketing is angled full square at youthful engagement.
Personally I can still just about remember the last time I drank a can of Red Bull – it was a long time ago. I don’t think I’m their demographic but the brand still touches me frequently through their involvement with F1 and extreme skiing. It will be a brilliant tie-up with Ernesto Bertarelli’s now very much mainstream team.
Having Alinghi back at the top table is vital and vibrant for both our sport and the event. How they will approach the Women’s and Youth AC will be event-defining. We are lucky to have them. We wait with bated breath to hear more at their next press conference and if it’s in Geneva, wild horses won’t stop me from being there. How they are going to approach this Cup is fascinating but everyone is looking, watching and spying for snippets of information.
The big question surrounds the afterguard and whilst we can see on an almost monthly basis the talent rising on the SailGP circuit, we just can’t get a handle on where Alinghi slots in. Arnaud Psarofaghis is the man we presume with the golden ticket and his hands on the wheel and in many senses that’s a wild card.
We know he was dynamite when he stepped onboard the Kiwi boat in Italy and that was possibly enough to convince Ernesto that his time was now. He’s calm, polite and grateful off the water. A killer on it. Watching Arnaud will be one of the highlights of this cycle. Here’s a young gun about to be thrust into a white-hot crucible against a club of outstandingly talented pros across the other teams. How he copes with the pressure is the key determinant but you can be sure that Alinghi, especially with Brad Butterworth onboard in the management, will cover him well, protect him and give him every chance of excellence. If you think the afterguard is a weak link in this chain, think again.
But all of the sailors in SailGP talk about a learning trajectory. How they are sailing the boats and set them up today is very different to even a year ago. They are faster, more aggressive, more confident, more into the numbers and crew metrics than ever before so catching up will be a tall task for Alinghi.
The summer rumour of Pete Burling and Blair Tuke joining the Swiss made a whole lot of sense if Alinghi wanted to have two sailors that absolutely knew where the ‘on’ button was but the nationality clause would preclude them from actually racing onboard and at the money that was being proffered, that might be a folly of an investment. Having Pete plugged into the AI simulator for a couple of years would certainly get Arnaud up to speed tactically whilst Blair advising on flight modes in the limited training periods and then as a coach to the team would certainly help.
Will it happen? The jungle drums suggest that it’s unlikely and if the Cup really has narrowed in venue terms to Cork, Malaga and Auckland (as a late runner) then Pete & Blair may well scuttle back to the Dalton/Shoebridge circus top safe in the knowledge that the completely unpalatable Jeddah is off the table now. One thing’s for sure, they’ll have to accept standard contracts – no superstar status is tolerated under the Superstar Dalton regime and with money tighter than a mackerel’s backside at Team New Zealand there’s no wriggle room to pay up for star sailors. That money is elsewhere.
And at Alinghi, Ernesto was clear in his press conference comments that the “team will be well funded” – that’s horse-scaring talk and the Alinghi team certainly know now where to spend effectively. You can be certain that both the design and build processes are far further ahead than they will admit publicly and the full sailing team is absolutely identified, engaged, up and running. Brad Butterworth and Hans Peter Steinacher will have seen to that and we will be seeing new names in the Cup world drawn from the Alinghi programmes that have been so wildly successful around the European circuit of GC32 and TF35s fused with experience.
What Ernesto is committed to is bringing Swiss sailors through and he’s seen enough around the lakes to know that there’s a golden generation – funded in part by Alinghi – of Swiss nationals that deserve a shot at the Cup. That calculation will be analysed and exposed brutally as the AC75s and AC40s are launched. But who’s to say he’s wrong?
The learning curve will be steep for all teams and maximising every second on the water and not disappearing down blind design alleyways is the absolute key to the next Cup. Team New Zealand are happy with what they achieved in the Protocol and the fact that they’ve let out what they consider are old design formats for the AC40 class almost certainly leads to a conclusion that they feel confident of staying half a generation ahead of the chasing pack. We’ll see.
Mercedes will be close. Luna Rossa know where to find speed. American Magic has dynamite data and know that Patriot was on the money far more than the naysayers will admit. Alinghi come from a completely different angle and that’s the great unknown in this cycle.
What we know for certain is that with Red Bull giving them not only wings and a heck of a caffeine shot, more importantly they bring F1 level process evaluation and design optimisation. They won’t be slow. If you’re a conservative gambler you’d have your chips on Ineos right now to be the lead challenger and a headache to decide if they’d beat Team New Zealand in a final. If you’re an inveterate all-in merchant, you’d be betting on the Swiss.
I know what my head tells me. I know what my heart tells me. You’re probably the same. But something’s shifting in the Cup galaxy. Bet against Alinghi at your peril.
Fascinating cycle this one.