It could come down to the smallest things: the weather, course selection, a minor mistake or perhaps the biggest factor: the start. That’s how finely the 36th America’s Cup is balanced, 3-3 with two evenly-matched boats which up until now have not behaved as anticipated.
Luna Rossa gave the Kiwis a fright on day one, proving to be highly competitive in 12-13 knots of breeze; Team New Zealand gave the Italians a shock by going faster in under 10 knots, supposedly their happy place, on day two – but then stuffed up the start of race five so badly, the boat looked like a shark with its fins cut off.
Then Luna Rossa hit a flat spot in the start box in race six – their turn to wallow while the Kiwis shot away. Welcome to the enduring mystery and ongoing contradictions of the AC75 foiling monohulls.
But what a pleasure to see this regatta come alive not only with close racing but racing almost impossible to predict reliably. After all the delays, sniping, lockdowns and rumours, we have the delicious uncertainty of top sport – an inability to tell who will win.
A big part of that is the AC75’s ability to confound. Until the wind really blows, we still won’t know all there is to know about these things – and the first three days just muddied the waters.
But here’s a crack at deciphering what we’ve seen so far:
• Luna Rossa seem quicker through manoeuvres so far – their tacks, in particular, seem a touch slicker than Team NZ’s.
• Luna Rossa seem to have the edge upwind, able to sail closer to the wind in their high mode than TNZ – evidenced on day one when Team NZ covered almost 1500m of extra distance to get to the same point as the Italians.
• Team NZ may be covering more ground but are overall quicker – and were faster on two of the three upwind legs in race five. They have noticeably more speed downwind and I suspect – but don’t yet know – they will be faster when the wind blows harder than it is right now.
• The wind shadow off these yachts seems way bigger than anyone anticipated, especially in light airs. That maybe explains why Team NZ look better when they split off and race in open air, rather than the close quarter stuff, and why passing is so hard.
• Luna Rossa’s crew and helmsman, honorary Italian Jimmy Spithill, are showing the benefits of the lead-up racing in the Christmas Cup and Prada Cup. That is exactly as it should be – the challenger has an advantage in racing experience; the defender has the advantage in almost everything else and quickly need to learn to sail their boat better.
That’s why Team NZ will be burning the midnight oil, in a kind of reverse San Francisco. In that unforgettable 2013 regatta, it was Oracle Team USA who stayed up all night, making adjustment after alteration to their boat in a (successful) search for speed and to make it easier to sail.
All of this leads to the conclusion most people have reached already – he who wins the start wins the race. Spithill is a renowned tough customer at the start and seems to have Burlingbluffed at times – and it was a worry that Burling’s explanation of the botched start of race five was that the systems were telling them they had more time to get to the start than they did.
That’s where the “slingshot” comes in – the high-speed starting manoeuvre where the attacking yacht swoops past the opponent to grab the lead off the line. Encouragingly for TNZ, Burling and co performed it well in races 1 and 4.
There is no doubt that, so far, the boats are so evenly matched that the leading yacht is able to play defence and choke the other boat off. The focus on starts will become ever more intense but it’s difficult to get too aggressive in these yachts – their shape and form means they can’t get too close and trigger a penalty. The boat that surrenders a penalty at the start is a goner.
However, we haven’t yet seen a race where the wind has blown or where there’s been at least some shifty winds a boat can find and use to make gains and maybe even a pass.
That’s where course selection comes in. TNZ were pretty testy about racing in level 2 in Auckland – because it took some courses, notably course C, out of contention because of concerns about gatherings in the spectator fleet. Course C is where Auckland’s prevailing south-westerlies can most easily make their presence felt, plus some breezes off the land might provide telling wind shifts during a race.
Only time will tell – and how good is it to see a regatta where the Italians have made a real match of it? Bravo to them; they might have firmly got up Team NZ’s nose in this Cup cycle but you cannot deny their capability and their role in potentially making this the best modern America’s Cup match.
If forced to make a prediction, I would say, because they have the most potential for improvement, that TNZ will win by a whisker, maybe 7-5 or even 7-6. But that will depend on the startbox action, a whole bunch of other variables and, if this benign weather continues, whether Team NZ can win the starts against Spithill.
Heading into the Cup racing?
• Give yourself plenty of time and think about catching a ferry, train or bus to watch the Cup.
• Make sure your AT HOP card is in your pocket. It’s the best way to ride.
• Don’t forget to scan QR codes with the NZ COVID Tracer app when on public transport and entering the America’s Cup Village.
• For more ways to enjoy race day, visit at.govt.nz/americascup.
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