The 52 Super Series 2023 season was like no other. It was exceptional. It really did have it all. And the finale on the Bay of Palma proved such an emotional roller-coaster that it left most exhausted. Not only were all the teams under immense pressure with the 2023 title in the balance, so too were the umpires and jury along with the race management trying to deliver in very difficult conditions.
Never before in the Super Series, or before that the MedCup, has the title been decided on a tie-break. It was heartwarming to witness Harm Müller-Spreer’s Platoon, technically winners after five successive overall podiums, elect to share the overall trophy with a Provezza crew who overall sailed better, and more consistently, but were finally thwarted by a rig problem that saw them miss three races.
Theirs became such an engaging rivalry. Provezza led for the entire season but also lost two mid-season events to Platoon by a single point. And it was further animated by two very different owners. Provezza’s discreet Turkish gentle giant Ergin Imre visibly suffered in those defeats, but on the last day he accepted his team’s fate graciously. And Müller-Spreer – on the outside the ice cool German, on the inside doubtless worried about being bridesmaid yet again. But this talented owner-driver managed to maintain a steely focus and deliver when it mattered.
Both deserved to win. But this season’s outstanding winners are the sport and the Super Series itself. Our grand prix sailing can be complex but this season was enriched by a galaxy of evenly matched teams at the very top of their game. Aside from the ‘who will win?’ story there has been the rise and rise of Tony Langley’s Gladiator, now under the guidance of Guillermo Parada and only narrowly missing the end-of-season podium.
Five different afterguard line-ups – due to a health issue for John Kostecki – were not a recipe for consistency for Doug DeVos’s Quantum Racing-American Magic but the newcomers injected vitality and hunger and obviously grew in strength, skill and composure. They will be contenders in 2024.
From Thailand, the Whitcrafts’ Vayu came so close to winning in Scarlino, proving a team with six family members onboard can compete with the world’s best and in only their second season, fast tracked by the Quantum Racing data-driven support programme.
There is no doubt then that a great 2023 season leaves the series in superb shape going into 2024 and beyond. Two new Botín boats are in build and it will be fascinating to see how the new Alegre and new Platoon fare from a standing start. That would also leave Provezza as the only remaining Vrolijk design in the fold, assuming Platoon’s new US owners don’t come to Europe.
But this is the right time to underpin the real longevity of the circuit, to make a solid strategy for the next four or five years. Of course it is for the owners to decide but with such a variety of owner nationalities it makes sense to keep adding new venues around the globe. Equally, South Africa in 2020 was but a mouthwatering foretaste of what can be experienced there.
For sure this winter should see a pathway developed for the medium to longterm future, reflecting where fleets of TP52s are raced and where there is interest in visiting as a fleet. Many would also argue that a breezy regatta is long overdue, yet expanding and enhancing the experience for team owners and their friends and family, clients, sponsors and guests maybe add more to the mix.
This year for the first time there were not one but two Judel-Vrolijk designs in the top spots. Were they the quickest on the water or just better sailed? And what made the key differences? The consensus from both teams was that neither had an outstanding edge though in general Provezza and Platoon are slightly quicker in the light. Both teams consider that new keel fins made a difference.
Tobias Kohl of the Vrolijk office notes, ‘The request from these teams was to improve upwind lane-holding, plus acceleration when starting and during manoeuvres. The decision was taken to go several per cent up in projected fin area, with the additional area all on the leading edge to have a positive effect on balance.
‘But the biggest downside of the extra wetted surface is the loss downwind. So the aim on fin size is to get as big as necessary within a given fleet, but no bigger. The upwind gains made were right across the range, but they were biggest in breezy conditions and a chop. As you’d expect down-speed ability was greatly improved; so too surviving in lanes as stipulated. On the back of these improvements confidence in the boats increased a lot.’
From their first success in Saint Tropez the Provezza afterguard highlighted their new fin, changed rig set-up and the integration of America’s Cup-winning ex-Azzurra trimmer Grant Loretz as key factors in their success, as well as America’s Cup sail designer Robert Hook of North Sails taking on the role as sail designer. Hooky returns to grand prix monohull sail design after a 12-year hiatus – the last TP52 he worked on was Rosebud in the USA, he revealed.
‘I take a very holistic approach to boatspeed,’ Hook explains. ‘I came in obviously as sail designer but my role with Provezza is very much speed coach. And from a speed coach perspective sails are just one of the many things that I look at. I first did a thorough analysis of the boat data over the whole of the previous season, looking at heel, rudder angle, boatspeed, tacking performance, all the data that was available. I came up with a shortlist of things that I felt would be worth investigating further as far as achieving better boatspeed or seeing dips in performance which could be ironed out from the overall performance profile.
‘There was a clear weakness in light air. The first time I sailed with Provezza was during the Worlds in 2022 in Barcelona, and obviously that was a very light regatta and some things immediately jumped out that needed attention in the sub-8kt conditions.
‘Some of these were sail related – the sails were too flat when they should have been deeper for the light conditions. On top of that were a myriad little details and small dips in performance in relation to all sorts of measurements on the boat. So it was a question of going through them fastidiously with the trimmers and helmsman, understanding what caused them and then ironing them out.’
As the results reflect, Hook feels Provezza’s biggest advantage was at the start of the season: ‘I felt we made our biggest gains in the first couple of regattas. We did a fair bit of work going into the training and the first regatta and could see differences in speed and in our approach to getting to maximum speed as fast as possible. We then went through the year continually refining the package.
‘What I noticed from the coach boat was the other teams initially spent a fair bit of time looking over their shoulders, but by the time we were three-quarters of the way through the season they started catching up. The differences I could see between us and other boats had dwindled away by the final regatta. But we had by then also got the sail shapes close to where we thought they should be and an understanding of how we wanted to sail the boat; also what the targets were and how to adjust the rig, especially in light conditions. It was a combination of six or seven different things.
‘But overall I don’t think we had any huge advantage. The guys obviously sailed well, positioned the boat well and the team certainly felt like they did not have the disadvantages they had in 2022.’
Platoon made progressive gains too but their initial weakness was starting… and collecting penalties. Their sail designer and strategist Jordi Calafat of Doyle Sails says, ‘I think we definitely improved downwind. We had been working a lot on downwind designs. Mains and jibs were just a few tweaks. But the biggest changes were the kites, the concepts and in the end actually going back to where we were a few years ago.
‘In some of the races it paid off. The Vrolijk boats are quick, especially in the lighter conditions this year. But we felt competitive most of the time even with our “fat” fin which is not ideal downwind. Hence we pushed harder and harder on our downwind sail design and downwind technique.’
Of the new fin Calafat’s assessment largely chimes with Provezza. ‘Our goal was to be able to hold very tight lanes out of the start, out of the gates, and I feel we got that. That does not mean we were the fastest in a straight line – with the fat fin sometimes you struggle to foot-off… then in other moments it comes alive.’
Calafat finishes with a warm tribute to their rivals: ‘I think Provezza was the best boat of the year, especially in terms of consistency. It is hard to tell who was quicker as I can’t remember lining up with them very often. Also at the beginning of the season we were not racing to the level we are used to… more than just speed issues.
‘Always, always we find things in the way we sail the boat, but we made a few mistakes around the course… As you know we had some penalties! But at the end of Scarlino we started sailing better and better. You have to really learn from the mistakes and be positive and we did that pretty well. We put our heads down and said, “OK, this is what we have to do, this is how we sail – and don’t suddenly become afraid to make mistakes.” I think that pays.’
And of the evolution of the dynamics with flamboyant new Italian tactician Vasco Vascotto, he concludes, ‘We have been working very well over the last year. We are getting more used to each other! When one is nervous the other is calm and when the other is nervous the other is calm.
Actually we help each other to stay calm – aware that we are both pretty full-on on the racetrack! And Jules [Salter, navigator] is also very calm, very precise in his job. He talks in facts, what is going to happen in the near future. ‘Jules is very objective in saying what is going on. Calm is good!’
Images © Nico Martinez