SailGP returns to the water and to our phone and computer screens at the weekend as the international circuit’s fourth (where does the time go?) season gets under way in Chicago this Friday and Saturday.
We reached out to all the teams ahead of the Chicago event to find out how they were each approaching Season 4.
The headline news is the introduction of a tenth team to the roster – that of Germany SailGP Team, which is led by German Olympic medallist and past 49er world and European champion Erik Heil.
Other than the announcement of Brazilian double 49erFX gold medallist Kahena Kunze as strategist, little has been announced about the German team’s sailing team line up at this stage – although British Olympic gold and silver medallist Stu Bithell is believed to have joined the team as wing trimmer after previously doing the same job for the Swiss team.
However, Heil told us that he had chosen “a mix of newcomers, experienced SGP veterans, and Olympics champions”.
“We want to use the opportunity to develop young talented sailors but at the same time do not want to make things too difficult at the beginning. Our sailing days on the F50s are very limited which requires everyone to get as much of an understanding as possible in a really short time.
“The skills we were looking for were a good mind set, experience, and above all a good character. We believe that it is very important to form a team that has the potential to understand each other and inspire each other in the long term.”
The German squad is reported to have been on the water training in San Francisco before the Season 3 finale, spent time in the SailGP simulator, and has been given an extra day of training ahead of the Chicago event.
Nevertheless, being dropped into the white hot crucible of your first SailGP regatta is a daunting prospect and Heil is understandably realistic about his team’s prospects at the Season 4 opener in Chicago.
“Our main goal for our first season is to manage the steep learning curve. We have great, experienced characters in the team and will work hard to develop quickly and keep up with the best in the fleet.
“Our performance target for Chicago is performance development. We are very realistic. We will be competing against the best sailors in the world on the fastest boats in the world on a very tight course.
“Chicago will be our first time out on the water with other F50 around. We have one additional day of practice ahead of the races together with some other teams. That will be our first practice with other F50s on the course and around us.
“We believe that we can make big steps in a short time, and hope to surprise people here and there. But our main focus is progression and concentrating on ourselves.”
Meanwhile, Tom Slingsby – skipper of the Australian three-time overall season winning crew – has been laying the groundwork for another successful season, but says the sailors’ focus at this stage is not necessarily on the end result.
“It’s a long season and we really try to focus on the processes of each event before worrying about the end result. Some of these processes are: to stay consistent, don’t get penalty points, get good starts, and continuously improve our position.
Slingsby will race with the same winning combination of talent that delivered overall victory in Season 3.
“Fortunately for the first time since SailGP has started we have managed to keep our same team moving into Season 4. Previously in the off season we have lost sailors, coaches, shore crew to other teams.
“We are obviously a target having been successful and other teams want to buy some of that knowledge. However, this year we are excited to be heading into the season with the same lineup.”
Commenting on the impact of the addition of a tenth team to the line up, Slingsby had this to say.
“Adding another boat on the start line changes things. Not because the fleet has grown from 9 to 10, but because we have a new unknown on the line that we have to learn.
“Will the German team be aggressive or passive? Will they go for the top or bottom end of the start? What will be their strengths and their weaknesses?
“It’s important to learn the traits of your competitors so you can get small advantages in your reaction times against that new squad. At the moment, we have no idea what to expect.”
Understandably, the two teams who finished Season 3 in eighth and ninth – Switzerland and Spain respectively – have come up with a different set of goals for the coming season – with both targeting a significant move up the overall rankings.
“Our main goal is to fight with the top teams at the end of the season, by building on the base we set at the end of last season with the smallest possible number of changes,” Spain skipper Diego Botin told us.
Botin has reconfigured the sailing team lineup somewhat by bringing in two new grinders – New Zealander Stuart Dodson and Portugal’s Bernado Freitas.
“One of them is to replace Joel Rodriguez since he shifted to flight controller and the other one to replace Jake Lilley who has other professional commitments outside of SailGP – but have both competed with the team already.”
Meanwhile, Swiss skipper Sébastien Schneiter says that as his team goes into their second season they are aiming to step up dramatically in the rankings.
“Our goal for this season is to make it into the upper half of the overall ranking. We are 10 teams so that means we are aiming to be in the top five overall at the end of the season.
“Aside from that we want to participate in two or three final races at the individual events – and we want to be in a position to win an event on at least one occasion.”
As part of what Schneiter describes as a planned change, Australian 470 Olympic gold medallist Will Ryan has joined the team as wing trimmer – replacing Stu Bithell.
“That’s a vision we have had for the team for a long while now and he will have some help from Glenn Ashby [who continues from the end of last season in the role of sailing advisor and reserve wing trimmer] to help him make a smooth transition into that role.”
After having to fight their way back from some early setbacks to finish third overall last season Ben Ainslie’s British crew are attacking Season 4 with typically gritty determination.
When we asked about the team’s goals for the fourth season Ainslie responded:
“The aim for any high-performance team is to compete at optimum ability. Our goal for each season is to finish in the top three which puts us into the winner-takes-all grand final.”
Ainslie was pleased to confirm there were no changes to the crew line up from Season 3 – but highlighted the return of grinder Matt Gotrel (aka ‘Shrek’) who had to recuperate after sustaining injuries when he fell overboard during a high speed downwind leg in Sydney.
“We have no crew changes for Season 4, although we are delighted to welcome back Shrek who missed the last two events due to his overboard situation in Sydney. It will be great to have him back on the handles.
“We are also continuing to support the Athena Pathway Programme, with both Hannah Mills and Hannah Diamond joining us again full time for the entire season in various roles on the race boat.
Commenting on the introduction of the tenth team, Ainslie had this to say:
“The whole league is excited to have another team on the start line, especially from a nation like Germany that shows such strong support for the sport of sailing.
“A bigger fleet makes the race starts even more important, and that is an area we will be aiming to improve from a consistency point of view.
“In Sail GP you need to push hard in the pre-start box to get the best possible position across the line, but you have to balance aggressive racing with protecting the assets and avoiding penalty points for damage and collisions. Another boat in the fleet adds to that complexity, but it’s the same for all the teams.
After finishing last season languishing in seventh place, United States SailGP Team skipper Jimmy Spithill is targeting consistency as the key factor to deliver a stronger performance from the American team in Season 4.
“Looking back at our performance in Season 3, it really was inconsistent. There was inconsistency in our line-up where we had constant rotation due to injury and sickness, inconsistency on the water, and also in our results where we went from winning events to finishing down the bottom at others
“It has constantly been shown in SailGP that to make that Super Bowl final at the end, you need consistency – it’s as simple as that.
So for this season (barring any injuries or sickness) we have a good solid core squad that is locked in. From there it is just about going out there, continuing to learn and grow, and really keeping that team locked together.”
Flagging up the fact that the Americans totted up the most penalty points for boat damage last season, Spithill said the goal was to eliminate that sort of wastage.
“It’s hard enough as it is to get enough points, but then to go out and lose points for a small collision, or silly little things like that, is super expensive come the end of the season.
“So it’s a fine balance of really pushing and going for opportunities, while at the same time making sure the risk weighs up versus the rewards. You have really got to think about the long term gain. Get out there, have clean races, try and finish in top half and have a shot at qualifying for the podium race on the final day.”
Perhaps the team that showed the most continual improvement during last season, the French squad ultimately had to swallow the disappointment of losing out on a place in the grand final after coming out on the losing side of a match racing battle with the British.
Unsurprisingly then, France’s wily CEO Bruno Dubois put avoiding that situation as top of the list of goals for the coming season.
“This time we clearly want to arrive in San Francisco for the last event without having to fight for our position in the grand final.”
Dubois told us he believed the biggest impact of racing with an additional team would be the startline.
“The start line is already hectic so having 10 boats now could be quite crazy. For the rest of the racecourse – of course it is going to be busy but I think not too much different to racing with nine teams.”
The French are hoping to start Season 4 strong with a good result in this weekend’s season opener in Chicago. Dubois said the team have fond memories of the venue.
Chicago last year was where we scored our first ever race victory – so I hope we can win a few more this time.”
Although we didn’t receive responses in time for this story from Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada we can confidently assume that all three will be hoping to build on their Season 3 performances.
Having had to settle for second place overall last time Peter Burling and Blair Tuke’s Kiwi squad will be gunning to start Season 4 strong as they set their sights on the overall title.
Meanwhile Nicolai Sehested’s Danish outfit will have their sights set on delivering their first event win as they try to establish themselves in the upper echelons of the fleet.
For Phil Robertson’s Canadian team, behind the scenes rumours of an impending change of ownership, do not make the ideal scenario to begin a new season. Robertson is a strong leader however and with his regular crew confirmed for Chicago he will no doubt be able to focus the sailors on the job in hand.
Main image © Simon Bruty for SailGP