It was billed as one of the 36th America’s Cup’s most important races so far – and the much-anticipated round robin 3 match between the unbeaten Ineos Team UK and the Challenger of Record Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli did not disappoint.
The race was an absolute edge of the seats thriller that featured nine lead changes before the Brits squeezed ahead at the final cross to take their fifth consecutive win – and a place in the Prada Cup final.
Here’s how Yacht Racing Life website editor Justin Chisholm saw the race unfold.
The sun was out, the breeze was up. Droves of spectators thronged the nearby headlands and encircled America’s Cup racecourse C out on Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour. The scene could not have been better set for the much-anticipated round robin 3 match-up between Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team and Ineos Team UK.
For the on-form British crew, a win would send them through to the Prada Cup final. Meanwhile the Italians needed to claim their first victory against Ineos to prolong the round robin stage for another day.
Everything was in place for an on time start at 1600 NZL, except the recalcitrant breeze which refused to settle in strength or direction. With the breeze gusting from 12 to 17 knots and flicking from hard right to hard left, the race committee had to resort to a series of postponements before they got the race away at 1700.
But no. With fewer than five minutes to the start, an issue with the mainsail Cunningham system on the Ineos Team UK AC75 forced a worried looking Ben Ainslie to call up the race committee to request a 15-minute delay.
As the minutes ticked away the Brits had to settle for a ‘set-and-forget’ solution, locking the Cunningham in place at an average 17 knot wind setting. It was a far from ideal solution that would enable the British boat to race but leave the boat compromised – unable to de-power on the upwind legs and to power up on the downwind sections of the course.
“We are just going to have to muscle this one out,” was the dour assessment British tactician Giles Scott gave as the British crew headed for the racecourse.
Meanwhile the conditions were getting trickier as a rain cloud gave the spectator fleet a sprinkling of rain and sent scattered swirling wind puffs across the course. As the teams wound themselves up to enter the pre-start box the race committee pressed pause once again, delaying the start time a further five minutes to 1720 NZL.
Finally though it was time to race. After the teams were surged into the pre-start box – the Luna Rossa from the left and the Ineos from the right – the Italians screeched over to the right-hand boundary and tacked. On board the British boat skipper and helmsman Ben Ainslie could immediately smell opportunity.
“They are early here,” he declared before pointing Britannia’s bows at the transom of the starboard tack Italian AC75. The two boats scorched by each other on opposite tacks – close enough to draw a (rejected) protest call from the Italians – before the Brits spun their boat around to chase their rivals back to the start line.
The manoeuvres were fast and furious as Ainslie tried everything he knew to catch his past team mate and now fierce rival Jimmy Spithill into fouling him. Two attempts at a leeward hook failed but at the start it was the British who looked marginally more comfortable coming off the line a boat length or so to windward of Luna Rossa.
There was nothing in it speed-wise as the two boats tore towards the left-hand boundary in tight formation. As the boundary approached the British were the first to tack away leaving the Italians to push hard towards the boundary line before tacking.
Wary of sailing boundary to boundary on such a shifty course the Ineos tacked back from the middle of the course and as the boats converged the Italians tacked ahead into a lee bow position. But the fluffed the tack and allowed the Brits to start to roll over them. A moment’s lack of concentration by the Ineos afterguard was pounced on by Luna Rossa‘s Spithill who threw the Italian boat into a sharp luff and called for a protest.
Whether the Brits were found to be at fault wasn’t clear, but it didn’t matter anyway as the move had unsettled them enough that they started to drop back before being forced to hurriedly tack away, resulting in them falling off their foils. When the boats re-converged Luna Rossa were a 100 metres ahead.
But as the boats approached the windward gate the Italians had another poor tack in front of the British on the layline to the left-hand gate mark, giving Ainslie a chance to squeeze inside and lead around the mark.
The two boats gybed simultaneously on to port soon after the rounding. This left the Italians three boat lengths to windward, from where they soon began to overhaul the British. This forced prompted Ainslie and Scott to gybe away to in search of clear air.
Luna Rossa meanwhile continued to the right hand (looking upwind) boundary where they appeared to make gains from a right-hand shift that enabled them to parallel the boundary for a considerable distance. But when they eventually gybed back towards the middle of the course the right shift was still in play and that enabled the British to cross ahead once again.
Ineos were ahead at the first leeward gate but by just five seconds as they chose the left mark and the Italians split to the right. The action made you breathless just watching and on the boats the tension was at fever pitch with just one mistake from either team likely to cost them the race.
“Let’s keep it calm here boys,” was Scott’s invocation to his crew mates.
And they were going to need to stay calm as the second upwind leg was all about gains for Italians who picked their way expertly through the various shifts and headers to round the second windward gate 19 seconds ahead.
A big right-hand shift on the second downwind leg appeared to hand even more advantage to Luna Rossa who looked set to extend even further and put the race beyond the grasp of the British. But Ainslie’s men stayed calm and focused. They made incremental gains by minimising the number of gybes compared to Luna Rossa and by the leeward gate they had all but halved their deficit to 10 seconds.
The Brit’s skilfully executed two board round up and tack manoeuvre as they followed Luna Rossa around the right-hand gate mark. This immediately wrong footed the Italians and enabled the Ineos crew to get a slight bow forward advantage as the two teams sailed a long tack out towards the left-hand boundary. With the breeze clocking to the right all the time when the British tacked away from the boundary the Italians crossed by no more than two lengths.
It was even closer at the final windward gate with just one second separating the boats as the British rounded the left buoy and the Italians took the right. The Ineos crew had the bit between their teeth now and were clearly on the attack on the final downwind leg.
When the boats converged at the midpoint of the leg the British were ahead but not by enough to gybe in front.
“If we gybe, we get rolled,” Scott intoned, his eyes locked on the fast-approaching red boat. So they stood on, allowing a split with the Italians and setting up the final cross of the leg as the deciding encounter of the race. If the British could cross the Italians’ bow on port then the race was theirs. No surprise then that the Luna Rossa afterguard went hunting for a penalty as they surged in on starboard. Both boats were soaking as deep as they could on the approach to the cross, and as the spectators held their breath it was the British who slid across ahead to take control.
At the same time as the British were gybing to cross the finish line the umpires rejected Luna Rossa’s protest, clearing the way for the elated Ineos crew to cheer and punch the air as they crossed the finish line to take their fifth consecutive race win and to claim the automatic spot in the Prada Cup final match.
The UK team’s hard-fought victory is a superb achievement given their boat was likely performance impaired by the Cunningham issues. The win is also a testimony to the British crew’s resilience and belief in their abilities and it buys them the precious time they have been hoping for to continue to push their boat and themselves up the performance curve.
The Italians meanwhile are left to rue what might have been in a race that saw them give away the lead on multiple occasions. They won’t have time to dwell on it too long however, as they have more racing ahead of them next weekend when they will face off against the NYYC American Magic syndicate in the semi-final series, beginning Friday January 29.