All participants in the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series and in the America’s Cup took part in both round robins, thus enabling everyone to meet twice before the end of the 35th America’s Cup first part. It is quite difficult to explain what has happened so far but it might be useful even for those who already know about it. In order to become the challenger for the America’s Cup, five challengers must compete in the selection series (it used to be the Louis Vuitton Cup, won by the Italian racing syndicates Il Moro di Venezia and Luna Rossa). For the first time in history, this year saw the defender - financed by Larry Ellison, founder of the Oracle computer technology corporation - participate in the selection regattas, too, after defending the America’s Cup in 2013. As the highest-ranking competitor after the two round robins, Oracle Team USA was awarded a point to be used at the start of the America's Cup final. If one of the challengers had won, the point would have been awarded to them, provided that such challenger would also win the selections series. This system - though a little complex - is meant to let sponsors stand out and to provide more entertainment, at least in words. But what really happened is that defender Oracle Team USA had a chance to evaluate the performances of all challengers, thus taking their measure and thinking of the possible changes to be made as selections take place.
Next week's regatta will see top four challengers advance to best of nine semi-finals with losing teams being eliminated. As the highest-placed challenger, the great Emirates Team New Zealand had the right to choose their opponent, and chose Sir Ben Ainslie's Land Rover BAR. The remaining semi-finalists are Artemis Racing by the Swedish financier Torbjörn Törnqvist, an energetic businessman in the sense that he deals with conventional energy sources such as oil and gas, and SoftBank Team Japan, considered by many to be an Oracle satellite syndicate, with which they share technologies. Theoretically, SoftBank Team Japan is weaker than Land Rover BAR, but the latter has many reasons for not wanting to face them directly.
So, two weeks after the beginning of the regattas - a few of which were postponed because of light or strong wind - the Groupama Team France was eliminated, in spite of their skipper, Frank Cammas, being probably the greatest multihull expert among all helmsmen taking part in the competition but short of money to obtain better results. One can argue that the competition has just started, were it not for the point awarded to the American team, which is now the big favourite to win the cup.
What about the vessels’ performances? Oracle Team USA is a high-performance, well-balanced vessel with little discontinuity. The team’s helmsman James Spithill has been very focused so far and is probably the best, not to mention his tactician, Tom Slingsby, adding value to him. Emirates Team New Zealand has a grinding set-up that makes it a very fast, stable and easy-to-drive vessel; however, its helmsman Peter Burling has at times shown a certain degree of naivety, which makes him a loser compared to some big names. Land Rover BAR won four golds and one silver, beside succeeding with Oracle Team USA in 2013 thanks to its ambitions, budget and helmsman, Sir Ben Ainslie. In spite of all this, its performances were not impressive, it had a major collision and never stood out in the racing series. Were it not for the two points lead it was given during the round-robin phase, it would not have qualified. Their dream of bringing the cup back to the Solent area seems difficult to achieve. The same thing can be said regarding Artemis Racing. On a regatta, the Oracle Team USA was very indulgent with them, thus raising suspicion that it wanted to benefit them with an important point. So far, this was a list of the most favourite syndicates in terms of budget allocation, whereas the two following ones are considered satellite syndicates: SoftBank Team Japan headed by Dean Barker, former Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman, and Groupama Team France headed by Frank Cammas - the only one eliminated. Dean Barker and a group of kiwi mates can drive the vessel with elegance and still be dangerous, while the French are less incisive despite being equipped with similar US-made technologies.
However, a similar speed among vessels can be observed, or better said, though speed differences exist, they are not always decisive on short distances, where a mistake or a fall off foiling can increase the lead and strongly influence the result. In short, the crew is fundamental and the ability to stay focused and to implement the right strategy is key to success. The vessel’s maximum speed alone cannot be enough.