Matthew Sheahan, who has been reporting on the America’s Cup in Auckland, shares his view of who will win the Prada Cup Challenger Selection Series:
If you watched the press conference ahead of the Prada Cup final in the hope that you would get some indication as to which team has the upper hand, you will no doubt have gone away disappointed.
If it is of any consolation, those of us that live in this time zone and for whom it was simply part of the daily schedule, also came away none the wiser.
That is no reflection on the two syndicate principals that attended the event, but more a sign of how difficult it is, in the absence of any racing, to separate Luna Rossa from INEOS Team UK.
Indeed, throughout what is almost a two week break from racing, the big question down here has been just that, who will win the Prada Cup? And the reality is that no one knows.
So, for what it’s worth I’m going to stick my neck out and give my view of what might influence the first to seven win series. But first a little background on why it’s so difficult to make a call on this.
INEOS started their campaign badly, we all know that; Ben Ainslie was candid about it at the time and has continued to be clear about the team’s early short comings ever since.
They came back and took the Round Robins by storm, never losing a race and launched themselves into the Prada Cup final with the luxury of 20 days to prepare and train for the big event.
Just before his team disappeared behind closed doors to breathe on their boat, he said that the advantage of time meant that they could consider doing things to their boat that wouldn’t have been possible if they had had to race their way to the final.
So what kind of things have the team been up to?
Unsurprisingly, he is now tight lipped about what’s been going on, leaving us completely in the dark as to whether they have performed more miracles or whether they’ve been bluffing.
Whichever strategy they’ve chosen, the result is that we have no idea as to how much they’ve pimped their performance. And that is most likely exactly what they set out to do.
Meanwhile, Luna Rossa had to fight for their right to get to the final and put a brave face on the benefits of racing over tinkering in the shed.
As I see it, while they have a point when they say that racing another genuine competitor is always better than taking on your chase boat, the fact is that American Magic was not the stiffest of competition for the Italians. Sure, they raced in the strongest breeze and looked good in it too, but when it came to sharpening their skills in a boat on boat duel, it simply didn’t happen.
Luna Rossa were clearly quicker and given how sluggish American Magic seemed to be by comparison, there was no datum to gauge their performance by.
But I think there is a way of separating the British from the Italians and that is by looking at the weather.
Apart from a general feeling that INEOS is, (or more accurately put was, as we don’t really know), slightly quicker downwind, their strongest card seems to be the close working relationship between Ainslie and his tactician Giles Scott, who is able to devote most, if not all of his attention to the weather on the race course. In shifty, tricky conditions, he’s looking for the breeze and the shifts on boat sides of the boat.
And that’s important as on Luna Rossa, co-helms Francesco Bruni and Jimmy Spithill share the view of what’s going on around them. Great though they are, because they stick to their own sides of the boat, they only see 50% of the picture. Sure, they now have Pietro Sibello reporting back on the conditions, but he is also holding down a full-time job trimming the mainsail.
Having gone for a sail the other day around the race course area near North head in a normal boat, I can attest to just how shifty and tricky this area is. No wonder that fortunes have been won and lost as boats approach the weather mark.
So, if it’s shifty and tricky with the breeze coming over North Head or anywhere else where the breeze is patchy and flicking around, I’d back the Brits.
If the breeze is steady and the race becomes more of a speed fest, I think the racing will be far more even and my money would start to be heading towards the Italians, especially if the wind speeds are in the lower range.
Their boat is slippery in the light and seems to transition more readily from displacement to foiling modes and we’ve already seen how this plays out. But again, that’s based on what they were capable of two weeks ago. As we saw from American Magic and as they say in financial circles, shares can go down as well as up.
The Italians have also demonstrated how much they’ve improved in heavy airs when they blasted around the course on the first day of the semi-final with a near faultless performance.
The increase in the wind limits from 21 to 23 knots that was planned for the Prada Cup final and the America’s Cup match have now been scrapped and 21 knots will remain as the upper limit largely for safety reasons. This means that the Italians now have confidence that they can handle the top end of the wind range.
My guess is that the performance profiles of both teams have been smoothed out with fewer awkward bumps and hollows in their polar curves. If this is the case, another reason why the weather may be a big factor.
In fact, having said that today’s press conference revealed little, there were some telltale signs of a shift in strategy during the press conference. A new subtle mind game has started.
Having told us nothing about what has been going on behind closed doors since they began racing, Luna Rossa’s Team Principal Max Sirena was happy to describe what they have been up to recently.
“Since we raced INEOS last time we have new foils, a new modified mast, a new set of sails, a lot of development of the software systems on the boat,” he said. “And then a lot of improvement in the comms, particularly those on board as we made a lot of mistakes when we raced against them last time and we want to try to come out of this with one less mistake than them.”
When Ainslie was asked what they had done, in contrast to his openness a few weeks ago, he gave us nothing today.
Throughout the conference there was repeated reference to how good the other team was, no one wanted to be the first on the dance floor. In fact Sirena went further and grasped the opportunity to underplay his team’s position.
“For sure we are the underdogs,” he said. “We had to sail in the semi-final to get here, INEOS went straight to the finals.”
Meanwhile Ainslie stuck to a more traditional approach.
“I think it’s going to be a fantastic fight. I fully expect that we’re going to see some amazing racing”, he said.
The fact is we just don’t know and I suspect that for all their reconnaissance on each other neither do they.
For the first race on Saturday (Feb. 13), weather conditions look light. As for outcome, it’s anybody’s guess.
PS: If this Cup wasn’t a steep enough learning curve, I managed to climb an even bigger one in trying to build a Cup Blog on which to post these scribblings. Please pass it on to anyone you think might be interested: https://www.planetsail.org/
Racing returns to the Hauraki Gulf on February 13 as the two remaining challengers vie for entry in the 36th America’s Cup Match.