The third day of racing in the Prada Cup final series down in Auckland, New Zealand saw two tight races between Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team and Ineos Team UK, with the Italians taking the first race after a fiery pre-start and the British winning the second race to claim their first point of the series.
Here’s how the Yacht Racing Life website editor Justin Chisholm saw the action play out…
After a tense week in Auckland at the 36th America’s Cup that was dominated by an unseemly public spat between the Challenger of Record and the Defender over the racing schedule, it was a relief for everyone to be able to get back to racing in the Prada Cup today.
Ben Ainslie’s British Ineos Team UK contingent were without doubt drinking in the Last Chance Saloon having lost four times in a row the previous weekend against the Italian Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team.
It wasn’t quite a win or go home day for the British, but Ainslie’s crew knew they had to somehow stop the bleeding by finally winning a race. For the Luna Rossa crew meanwhile the goal was to keep focused and by the end of the day deliver another pair of wins that would take them to match point in the series.
So it was a tense scenario for both squads going in to the first race of the day and therefore no real surprise that the pre-start manoeuvring in the opening race was some of the most aggressive we have seen in this 36th America’s Cup so far.
A 10 knot (but slowly building) sea breeze was in play when the two teams entered the start box – Luna Rossa from the left and Ineos from the right. Both had identified a heavy starboard end bias to the start line, as well as a right-hand side favoured first windward leg of the course.
That made winning the starboard (right) end of the start line the priority for both teams. Whoever manged to do that would be first over to the stronger winds on the right-hand side and from that position would take control of the race.
After the Italians made a long looping gybe turn at the right-hand side of the prestart box, Ainslie chose to tack in to a windward position, high of the layline into the starboard gate marker.
His goal was to engage with Luna Rossa and try to push them back early to the start line to create a gap for himself at the starboard end.
But canny match racing veteran Jimmy Spithill on the starboard wheel of the Italian boat was having none of that as he craftily switched his boat into a high and slow mode that effectively blocked the British boat’s path to the start line.
There was no backing off though from Ainslie. He continued to push and push and eventually succeeded in somehow forcing the British boat in between the Italians and the starboard start mark. It was a gutsy move that culminated in the Brits taking control with a quick tack out to the right. Unfortunately for Ainslie, however, the move also set alarm bells ringing in the umpires booth.
Both the Italians and the British were over the line at the start, but these two penalties cancelled each other out.
The Brits were then hit with a penalty for barging in at the start mark. This they quickly paid off as they headed for the right-hand boundary, but a verbal complaint from Jimmy Spithill that the Brits had gained an advantage from the barging offence prompted the umpires to issue a second penalty to Ineos.
Being in the controlling position on the favoured right-hand side meant it took several minutes for the British to exonerate themselves by dropping back 50 metres on Luna Rossa. When they finally did though the Italian crew were in full control of the right-hand side and – as it turned out – the race.
The Ineos crew did a good job of trying to keep it close for the first two laps and even at times made significant gains on their Italian rivals. But the result was never really in doubt and in the latter stages Luna Rossa steadily eased their way into what turned out to be comprehensive a one minute and 20 second victory.
That put them five races to zero ahead and just two races away from a place in the 36th America’s Cup final. Could they extend their winning streak in the second race?
No turned out to be the answer as the British crew finally found the form they had been searching for throughout this Prada Cup final to claim their first win of the series.
In many ways the set up for the final part of the pre-start was an exact reversal of the previous race, with Ainslie this time leading back from to leeward and Spithill setting up to windward before making a big dive down to try several times to harry the British crew. Ainslie shrugged off all of these advances however, which left Luna Rossa slightly late for the start at middle of the line.
This handed the advantage to the British who had started cleanly at the leeward end of the line and were then able to quickly squeeze up into Luna Rossa to force Spithill into an early tack away.
When the boats converged again Ineos were able to cement their controlling position with a perfectly timed lee bow tack that seemed to come as a surprise to Luna Rossa co-helmsman Francesco Bruni and forced Spithill to tack away once more. Another miscall from Bruni at the top of the first beat as to whether Ineos were on the layline to the right mark saw the British begin the first downwind leg ahead.
At that point there was only eight seconds in it, but from there the British were largely in control of the race and mostly seemed comfortably able to fend off any attacks from the Italians.
That’s not to say they strolled away it. In fact the final lap saw Spithill and Bruni pick their way skilfully up the last beat to almost get within striking distance as the teams began the final run.
Cool heads prevailed on board Britannia however and they made the best of the increasingly patchy breeze to close the race out and take their first win – albeit by a margin of just 14 seconds.
The significance of this race win for the British cannot be underestimated. What happens next is impossible to predict but for Ineos the worst-case scenario is that they have merely saved themselves the embarrassment of losing in a whitewash.
The best-case scenario however is that this victory is the spark that lights the touchpaper to a stunning comeback victory. Which scenario is going to play out is very much in their hands.
Meanwhile, for the Luna Rossa crew it is time to quickly shake off the loss and put it behind them. No doubt they will analyse it, debrief their mistakes, and then try to write it off as just a bump in the road as they try to refocus on tomorrow’s two races.
Six races in, although the result of this Prada Cup final series is a long way from being a certainty, the Italians are very much in the driving seat. At 5-1 the mountain the British have to climb remains dauntingly steep and you could argue that the series is Luna Rossa’s to lose.
Either way, the pressure is very much on for both teams, and I suspect that – other than the exhausted grinders – neither set of sailors will be sleeping too well tonight.
Main image © COR36 | Studio Borlenghi