As often in Italian seafaring stories, the first inkling of Luna Rossa was in Milan. It was there in the studio of famed Argentinian naval architect German Frérs that Patrizio Bertelli decided to launch the America’s Cup challenge in the early days of 1997.
The Italian boss chose the other key men of the team soon after. American designer Doug Peterson and Brazilian ace Torben Grael were to be joined by the Neapolitan skipper Francesco de Angelis. He bought three IACCs, the class of the time called Kanza, Might Mary and America³. Punta Ala, in Tuscany, was chosen as the team’s Italian base for its conditions comparable to those of the Hauraki Gulf, in New Zealand, where the races would be held.
On 21st April, the Punta Ala Yacht Club formally challenged the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, holder of the trophy. It was the official beginning of one of the most exciting adventures of Italian sports with a name that was destined to excite, Luna Rossa.
The mystery of the name
The name was revealed at the launch of ITA-45, the first boat of the challenge, in Punta Ala on 5th May 1999. As the official story has it, the name popped into Bertelli’s mind while he was admiring the rising of a big reddish full moon on a warm summer evening during a dinner on the hills of Tirli, near Punta Ala. Bertelli’s wife, Miuccia Prada, has always maintained that the name was in perfect contrast with that of the defender, Black Magic.
Later, they remembered the Neapolitan song called “Luna Rossa”, written in 1950 and re-interpreted in a modern key by Renzo Arbore. The tune would follow the boat on its adventures in the southern hemisphere. That they were off to a great start was clear to all at the Louis Vuitton Cup in the winter of 1999 when they competed in Auckland with nine other syndicates. Luna Rossa lost only one race in the first two Round Robins. By the semifinals, it was leading the pack despite two losses.
An epic battle
The semifinal round was not one of the easiest. After having previously used the new ITA-48 hull, De Angelis chose to go back to the tried and tested ITA-45 that the New Zealanders had dubbed the “Silver Bullet” for its speed. Luna Rossa ended the regattas in second place and faced off with America One for the Louis Vuitton Cup. Their skipper Paul Cayard was an old friend of the Italians for his past at the helm of the Moro di Venezia.
The challenge will go down in the history of the America’s Cup and in Italian collective imaginary not least because of the live television coverage on TMC. It was a heart-stopping series: first 1-1, then 3-1 for Luna Rossa, then 3-4 for America One that appeared to have found an extra gear. The Italians were pulling all-nighters because of the time difference to watch the regattas. It was all everyone was talking about at school, in cafés and at work. The headlines on newspapers and TV were all about burst spinnakers, sails in the water, penalties and insults, masterstrokes and mistakes.
The team made a comeback and the score was 4-4 with just 37 seconds left on the clock. In the ninth race, on 6th February 2000, they went at it like there was no tomorrow. De Angelis and Grael’s team defence of the 34-second lead at the first mark was exemplary. Italy won the Louis Vuitton Cup for the second time in history.
The Kiwi barricade
The 30th America’s Cup Final took place from 20th February to 2nd March. Expectations were running high in Italy but it was soon apparent that it was not in the cards. Black Magic NZL-60 was like a missile with its crew made up largely of San Diego veterans and Sir Peter Blake guiding it from the shore. It was a 5-0 win. The gaps were not huge (from 48 seconds to two minutes 43 seconds) but the feeling was that nothing more could be done. Russell Coutts even enjoyed the luxury of handing the wheel over to young Dean Barker in the last match-race.
The trophy remained in Auckland, Sir Peter Blake said bade farewell amidst the cheers and decided to apply himself to ocean sailing but Luna Rossa (rightly) was not ready to give up just yet and a few minutes after Black Magic had crossed the finish line, they presented a new challenge. When they returned to Auckland in 2002 for the 31st edition, Patrizio Bertelli’s team was essentially the same as the one that had won the Louis Vuitton Cup 2000, but this time the boats were not up to scratch, so much so that designer Doug Peterson was relieved of his duties after the first disappointing races.
In the final in Valencia
With some hard work in the shipyard and hasty fine-tuning, Luna Rossa managed to reach the finals and dominated the Victory Challenge but in the end lost 2-3 to One World Challenge. Five years would go by before Luna Rossa appeared again in the Mediterranean when Alinghi chose Valencia to defend the trophy they had won against all odds in the Antipodes.
Bertelli’s crew was even more international and full of champions. They fought very well, losing just 4 out of 20 races in the selections. The semifinals make Italian fans dream again when the team assertively defeated BMW Oracle Racing 5-1 reaching the Louis Vuitton Cup final and giving Luna Rossa Challenge the chance to make up for its defeat in Auckland in 2000.
But the Kiwi boat found ideal light wind conditions and although the Italian team - led by James Spithill and Torben Grael - never let up, all five races ended the same way. Bertelli called it quits but reconsidered and returned the following year.
The times of the catamarans
A prolonged legal battle between the defender Alinghi and the challenger Oracle Racing prevented Luna Rossa from taking part in the next edition. But in 2011, a new challenge began and this time the stars were the AC 72 catamarans. Two years later, three teams were vying for the Louis Vuitton Cup in the waters off San Francisco. Luna Rossa, entrusted for the first time to Italian Max Sirena, did the job liquidating the Swedish team 4-0 in the semifinals but once again encountered the Kiwi barricade and lost 7-1.
Bertelli was not about to give up and started preparing the campaign for the 35th edition, in Bermuda, on the new class chosen by BMW Oracle Racing. But, surprisingly and unfairly, the defender submitted yet another boat for the event in April 2015. The unexpected switch from the AC 62 to the AC 50 (understandably) enraged Patrizio Bertelli, driving him to say goodbye and storm off, declaring he never wanted to hear about the America’s Cup ever again. Luckily for us, he changed his mind.