Well none of us saw that one coming, did we? It was only a week ago that I was surmising that Ian Walker would be a happy man after the encouraging performances right across the Olympic fleets of the 51st Trofeo Princesa Sofia regatta by Great Britain’s new golden generation. But sadly for the RYA, Ian wasn’t in back-slapping mode, dialled into Marseille planning or directing the coaching teams to polish rough diamonds when he got back to his desk. Oh no, he was preparing his resignation letter from his position as Director of Racing, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, making sure that his various official quotes hinted at the future and thanked his paymasters for the opportunity. One hundred percent this is the RYA’s and the Olympic sailor’s loss. That role was perfect for Ian. Sad to hear the news.
But then the speculation about what exactly the “future challenges” Ian was taking on went into overdrive. Like Paddington Bear sniffing a marmalade sandwich, the dots were drawn to the one, obvious position that exercises so much debate and on the basis of absolutely nothing, it’s being assumed that he has lined up a senior position at Ineos Britannia to guide the team to America’s Cup glory.
If it were true, well there probably isn’t a better person for that role in Britain. Iain Percy is a name that trips off lips in the same breath but Walker, whose peerless reputation was amplified by continued and stunning glory at the Tokyo 2020 Games, accelerated into pole position – at least amongst the speculators.
But what is it about the Ineos Britannia set-up that people in the Cup community feel needs addressing? Is it that at a very senior level, the likes of James Allison and Sir Dave Brailsford are so shorn of yachting experience, however long on sporting performance and elite athlete programming, that a wise head like Walker needs to come in under the Mercedes umbrella to corral and guide the money-no-object, win-at-all-costs campaign?
I’d be surprised if the rumour mill is true. But if it were, and Walker does lend his stardust to Ineos, then the campaign is richer for his inclusion. I’ve long admired Ian since the very first time I raced against him in the National Youth Squad in the 1980’s. There was something about him then, as there is today. At his school, Sevenoaks, they pretty much dominated the team-racing world and by the time he hit 420’s, he was mustard. Cambridge University’s sailing team then got the Walker putsch before the late, great Johnny Merricks teamed up with Ian in the 470 to take silver in 1996 when they were nailed-on for gold in Savannah. A further stunning silver, this time a less likely medal, with Mark Covell in the Star for Sydney in 2000 was a final Olympic hurrah before big boats beckoned.
Ian was lured into the GBR Challenge in 2002/2003 as the figurehead for the late Peter Harrison’s syndicate and acquitted himself well despite the boats being not at the level of Alinghi, OneWorld or BMW Oracle Racing. In truth they were duking it out with Sweden’s Victory Challenge and a faded DC in Stars & Stripes but they took some scalps along the way and if Britain had found the money, I have no doubt that Walker would have gone on. But that didn’t happen and he transferred to Ocean Racing with Green Dragon in 2008 before courting Abu Dhabi for two further races in 2011 and 2014, winning the latter by sheer force of will and personality. It was the triumph of triumphs.
So a cosy desk job at the RYA guiding the next generation and continuing the medal haul looked like the dream appointment. Here, Walker could put back into the sport a modicum of what that sport has given to him and on the face of it, all was rosy. It’s well documented however that the RYA can be a tough place to work. The pressure is intense. The expectation is extraordinary. The structure is weird at best. But with Walker’s intelligence and determined manner, I think it was safe to assume from a commentator’s perspective that this was going to be a walk in the park. If you buy into the notion that ‘nothing succeeds like success’ then Walker was home and dry. But it wasn’t to be and the difficult thing to analyse is whether he jumped or was pushed.
In the spirit of glass half full, I’d like to believe that he jumped and that Ineos Britannia is the destination. No-one’s saying anything in Cowes this weekend. No-one really knows. But if it’s true, Ineos gets a top-talent who I firmly, wholeheartedly believe, could be the key to unlocking not only the America’s Cup, but all the AC40 talent too. Ian knows where to look for the sailors that will define Britain’s attempts in both AC37 and AC38 – maybe even beyond that. He would be a dynamite appointment that could bridge effectively to the Allison/Endean/Brailsford management, which is pretty much a dream team, alongside working with the design teams and the sailing crews onboard the 75’s and 40’s.
It’s unlikely we will know much more until his RYA appointment ceases in June/July time but Walker on the open market is a tantalising proposition. As missing links go, this could be brilliant for British yachting in the America’s Cup.
I hope it happens.