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America's Cup Rialto: Feb 13 - A result few would have picked - Final Day 1

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 13 Feb 13:58 UTC 13 February 2021
Luna Rossa - Pre-Start - Race 1 - Prada Cup Final - Day 1 - February 13, - America's Cup 36 © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

The question was asked earlier in the week of Max Sirena, skipper of Italian Challenger Luna Rossa, as to whether it was more beneficial to spend time working on speed developments to an AC75, or putting in sailing time on the water?

Sirena dodged making a call saying that the answer would be known at after the Finals.

The reality is that we probably know the answer now.

Luna Rossa turned in an impressive performance to win both races sailed today on the first day of racing in the Final Series.

The race statistics tell a compelling story. Luna Rossa lead at every mark, on almost every leg the margin between her and INEOS Team UK increased. On the final leg of Race 1 the Brits took 11secs out of the Italians, and on Leg 4 of Race 2 they got 1sec back - but that was it.

Perhaps even more surprising was that the Italian advantage was not not just in the light breeze which prevailed for Race 1, but right through the wind range as the sea breeze hit over 20kts in Race 2.

INEOS Team UK was the surprise winner, but a very dominant one in the Round Robin racing winning four races, plus a sail-over to go straight through to the Challenger Final, and have the benefit of a three week break - and ostensibly the opportunity to get some solid development work done to once again improve speed.

The Brits had been impressive between the end of the America's Cup World Series in December - where they were well off the pace, and the Round Robins, where they showed they were the boat to beat. For sure the last race against Luna Rossa was very close, but the Brits came away with their fourth win, and with the assistance of a sail-over they had the five wins to make the Final.

However the question now has to be asked - do the boffins, of whom there are plenty in all America's Cup teams, have too much call on speed development? Or, is it better to work on getting the basics right, and then letting the sailors get comfortable with the boat, and learn to drive it fast and easily?

Of course, with their development program, Luna Rossa could well have leapfrogged INEOS Team UK - where the sum of the Italian improvements was more than those of the British.

The other question that tied in with the first asked of Sirena, was whether it was a better move to qualify for the Final via the Repechage/Semi-Final route - taken by Luna Rossa. Or was it better to move straight to the Final.

The Semi-Final option had the benefit of an extra four races, maybe more, over two days - in a series where the competitors generally seem to be short of a gallop. The direct route gave the extra development time - and given what the Brits had been able to achieve between the ACWS and Round Robins - what could they do given another three week stretch?

Today started with a light sea breeze ahead of some advancing tropical storms, or the remnants of, which are due to hit Auckland for the first three days of next week.

Mid-morning the breeze looked like it would settle from the NE and spread across the Auckland isthmus to the west coast. However that was not to be and Auckland found itself in twin seabreeze mode as a 15kt westerly on the west coast fought a 10kt NE breeze on the east, around race start time of 4.19pm.

In the oddest of circumstances, INEOS Team UK - although towed onto her foils earlier, was sailing at 33kts 1min 45secs before the start of Race 1, but 40 secs before the start she hit a soft spot in the funky seabreeze, dropped off her foils and was sailing at just 4.6kts. Luna Rossa had the good fortune to miss the same lull and good away to a fast start, which she built out to a 700 metre lead soon after the start.

Even through the wind increased to 8-9kts, INEOS Team UK struggled to foil - and by the time she had got airborne the race was all but over.

Race 2 was much closer - initially with the breeze at around 14kts and building to 20kts as the race progressed.

INEOS won the start by half a second, and got the leeward berth, bouncing Luna Rossa off the right hand side of the course - but at the first cross the Italians were ahead and try as they might there were no passing lanes in the course, and all the Brits could do was stay in touch and hope for a snaffu aboard the Italians.

Both boats changed down their jibs in anticipation of a fresher breeze but probably could both have gone down a size or maybe two.

The point that came loud and clear from the Italian challenger was that the revamped Luna Rossa was easy to sail, and the crew conversations crisp but casual, even to the point of cracking jokes - maybe for the benefit of the on board audio.

While there has been a lot of talk about the Italians having two helmsmen in Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni - who don't change sides for the race, it seems as though the Brits have gone down the same path. Our impression from the on board video is that Ben Ainslie and Giles Scott hand the steering between each other, without either changing place.

In a similar vein while there has been a lot of rules back and forth over the Italian running backstays and whether they should be tight, today they looked to be tight, and used the same as everyone else.

With the breeze forecast to increase for Day 2, will Luna Rossa be able to pull off another double and go into the series break with four wins, and a firm grip on the Prada Cup?

Emirates Team New Zealand cast a shadow over the early buildup - working up to the north of the race course when the breeze was light, although we didn't get a close look, through the binoculars, the Kiwis looked very smooth, fast and slick.

In three weeks we'll have some answers on that point, too.

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