Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Deep, Deep Inside the AC Beltway

One of the truisms expounded by any number of players around here is that nobody wants to win the America's Cup on a fluke. Hogwash. Given the opportunity, I'd be glad to win the America's Cup on a fluke.

Scandals? Rumors? The America's Cup is grand nonsense or it's nothing. When was the Cup ever without fustigation? From Lord Dunraven to the antics of Alan Bond, who had quite a gleeful summer of bickering in Newport in '83, there's always been something. Now in Valencia we've gone from talking about the weather to sailing in what we've got, and there are people who are sure that our lost racing days were all part of a dastardly plot, and Alinghi's overdue weather briefing on Wednesday didn't satisfy everybody, and seven flights in, the big players haven't even pulled out all their ammunition yet and . . .

Remember, all we're doing in the round robins is sorting the cut to the final four. Then seven players go home and the game gets seriously serious for those remaining. Only then is it time to look into the inventory of sails that were set aside (the big teams measured a minimum inventory for the round robins) and perhaps reconfigure the package, based upon your evaluation of opponents, or if your meteorology team sees different winds in the offing. If you haven't already sent those guys out to be hanged. I came here expecting a BMW Oracle-Emirates Team New Zealand finale in the Louis Vuitton challenger series, and there's still room for me to be surprised, but nobody has shown me what they're going to use to surprise me. Here's the US team handling Areva.

© Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

I figure the most interesting discussions behind closed doors right now would be about what to change and how to change it in the short time between round robin racing and the semis. When May 8 and 9 were scheduled as reserve days at the end of RR2, no one really expected them to be used. Now they just might be.

Wanting to expand that window, the challengers recently asked event management to push back the start of the semis. They were told, No.

The challengers also wanted to extend the period for making changes, from 24 hours ahead of the first warning signal to 0800 on the first day of racing. Again, no. Do you think serious changes are contemplated?

BMW Oracle and Emirates Team New Zealand have never doubted that they would make the semis. Luna Rossa, which has generally been placed in the same category, has taken some lumps--losing in one day to Shosholoza and BMW Oracle--but they were a credible threat throughout both races. They were never "put away," so I'm keeping them on my list for the semis. If nothing else they have trimmer Joe Newton, who can come out at the end of a day like that, smile, and say, "We were very pleased with our speed."

If the sailing thing doesn't work out, Joe, there's always the diplomatic corps.

But Patrizio Bertelli's team cannot afford any more slips. Their expected win on Wednesday over Areva was convincing, but it was no runaway, and watching the tacking duel up the first beat of their second race, against hard-luck +39, I'd say that Luna Rossa helmsman James Spithill and tactician Torben Grael were in control of the leg. But +39 was matching them for speed.

Shosholoza? A great story whether they make the cut or not. They came in talking "next time" and when next time comes, expectations will be high. The subtext to their win on Tuesday against Luna Rossa is that they started their training in second-hand Luna Rossa V4's.

© Chris Cameron/ETNZ

Yep, the Shosholoza team is good story. On Wednesday, however, they were put in their place by New Zealand. I won't pretend to know what Grant Dalton may have said to his Kiwis before the race, or left loudly unsaid (I do know they were up at dawn to mark Anzac Day), but New Zealand got Mascalzone'd early on in this round robin, and in their world, that's not allowed. Out of the woodwork came the "Dean ain't got it" chorus. Beating up on Shosholoza was a moral necessity, and they were businesslike and efficient in the way they went about it. It was their race. But the delta, 01:23, had more to do with windshifts and the fortunes of war than with relative speed. What's in it? The South Africa team set up their boat for light winds, the house bet at this time of year, because for them, this is is the America's Cup. For the Kiwis, as with other big teams, peaking now would be too soon.

Against Desafío Español in the second flight of the day, Shosholoza showed well up the first beat and down the first run, but the local team was in control in a localized breeze that touched 16 knots. This pair was great to watch. They really mixed it up, upwind and down, but Luis Doreste and his team had the best of it in a race that neither boat could afford to lose. The result left Desafío Español one point behind fourth-place Mascalzone and Shosholoza four points back.

Compared to lapping the track on Tuesday under Luna Rossa's hot breath, BMW Oracle had a bye and a matchup with Areva. Not scary. Strategist Eric Doyle noted that the first beat went off in 9 knots, "And after that it slowly eased; Areva seemed to fall out of the comfort zone." These guys still have Mascalzone and Desafio to sail before they get to the race everyone is waiting for, against New Zealand.

Full marks to "Robert" and "sturdee" for quickly spotting Peter Isler out of BMW Oracle navigator's uniform in yesterday's lighthearted quiz. I fear I owe someone a photo credit for this and will eagerly add it if you ring my chimes.

Here is Pedro photographed by Gilles Martin-Raget, as we more often see him around here these days.

OKAY I saved the weather for last. I've never been big on conspiracy theories because they tend to attribute too much foresight to the alleged perpetrators. I don't know to what extent the defenders might have imagined causing problems for challengers by scheduling the match in June. They claim the schedule was intended to maximize opportunities for television while avoiding conflicts with other sports. I'm gonna buy it because it's plausible and we'll just never know, and it's quite a stretch to imagine that Ernesto Bertarelli, as defender, wanted things to kick off this way.

So, the briefing in brief: April 2007 is one very unlucky month for sailing in Valencia. Period. Signed, Jack Katzfey and Jon Bilger, Weather Team, Alinghi.

Statistically, they said, Valencia in April-June runs 80-90 percent sailable days. April '07 is running 50 percent so far, according to Bilger: "We had seven consecutive non-sailable days, and we came close to have 11 consecutive. But normally in these months, this is a great place to sail. You can't predict the weather three years out."

Photo by © Ivo Rovira/Alinghi of Jack Katzfey

The problem, Katzfey said, is a high pressure system (a "blocker") centered over France, where temperatures are running about 7 degrees above average (Celsius). That high should be down over Africa, for racing to proceed as planned.

At the moment we have a spot of rain over Portugal, headed this way, but with a sailing breeze in it, according to these chaps. I reckon we'll take it.

Flight 6
Luna Rossa d. Areva -- 00:33
Victory d. +39 -- 00:55
Desafio Español d. China Team -- 02:01
Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia d. United Internet Team Germany -- 00:24
Emirates Team New Zealand d. Team Shosholoza -- 01:23
Bye BMW Oracing

Flight 7
BMW Oracle d. Areva -- 2:54
Luna Rossa d. +39 -- 1:22
Mascalzone Latino Capitalia d. China Team (withdrew)
Emirates Team New Zealand d. United Internet Team Germany – 01:03
Desafío Español d. Shosholoza -- 00:57
Bye Victory Challenge

The Goodies
BMW Oracle, 15
Emirates Team New Zealand, 14
Luna Rossa, 13
Mascalzone Latino Capitalia, 12
Desafío Español , 11
Victory Challenge, 10
Shosholoza, 8
Areva, 5
United Internet Team Germany, 3
+39, 2
China Team, 1