Saturday, April 28, 2007

Lights. Camera. Action!

It was made for the movies. Desafío Español taking a big one off mighty BMW Oracle to wake up the home audience on a sunny Saturday in the south of Spain, and then without time off to lick its wounds the US team cranking up against rival numero uno, the boat at the top of the leaderboard when round robin racing began, Emirates Team New Zealand. And beating them up bad in the prestart. And then getting greedy and giving it all away and having to hammer their way back to take the race but good.

Hammered: The Kiwis.

Dissatisfied: The Spanish, with Desafío Español taken down by Luna Rossa in their own second flight.

Interesting subtext: My Spanish and Italian colleagues of the press corps speculating that the American team threw the race against Desafío Español, "because they want Spain in the semifinals."

Me, I'm congenitally indisposed toward conspiracy theories, though I reckon that every now and then, one proves true. Here's Desafio steaming out of the weather mark in the lead.

© Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

So we're halfway (at last) to the cut to the final four, and we roll directly into Round Robin 2 with BMW Oracle at 21 points, Luna Rossa (19); Emirates Team New Zealand (18); Desafío Español (17).

Still in the hunt: Mascalzone Latino and Victory Challenge tied at 14.

Fading but not gone: Shosholoza at 12.

The top dogs know that, barring a cataclysm, they're going to the semis. What's in play now is winning for pride, sniffing the opposition, and claiming the right to pick your opponent in the semis by being on top of the leaderboard at the end of the round robins.

As I write this, it's well past 10 pm in Valencia (the restaurants must be roaring about now) and I figure the shore teams are busy in at least some of the compounds. It is legal to re-mode between round-robin rounds, though with RR1 finishing late today and RR2 gearing up tomorrow, there are limits. Luna Rossa's American mainsheet trimmer, Jonathan McKee, said, "There's plenty that you can change overnight, if you think you need to." And will you? "You'll have to wait and see if we have a new certificate tomorrow."

Quote-Unquote Jonathan McKee

On match racing at the America's Cup:
"People have raised the game. It's become more difficult to win the starts, and you see more starts that are even."

On the helmsman's role in winning or losing:
"Tactical style is never just one person. It's important that the whole afterguard come together. Hard races help you do that, and we're getting hard races here."

(Which might be relevant to those who are calling for Dean Barker's head. Here's Dean; it's not easy being Kiwi.)

That Start

You'll wait a long time to see a prettier dialup. Chris Dickson at the helm of BMW Oracle came in from the right end of the line, on starboard, and Dean Barker at the helm of Emirates Team New Zealand took the pairing right up into the wind, keeping the game in the middle of the line, for openers. Dickson and his team set up nicely, slightly behind—where you want to be if you're the boat on the right, because you quickly become a windward boat that must keep clear—but if you blinked you missed the transition with ETNZ the first to start drifting backwards, and then a beam-on drifting match with the booms full out. At a glance it looked dicey for Dickson, being to weather, but it quickly became apparent that there was no way Barker was going to get at him from that position, and BMW Oracle was in control of the situation.

With Dickson hunting down, Barker decided to get out of dodge, but the result was that Dickson was able to herd the Kiwi boat to the left and then above the line, right out of the starting box as time expired. That's where the greed came in. BMW Oracle could at that moment have pushed the game just a bit farther, tacked, and returned to dip across the line—back into the starting box—for a clear ahead entry to the course. New Zealand would have had no choice but to follow. Instead, Dickson went for the kill, not tacking but gybing, opening a trap above him where he intended to nail the Kiwis with a port-starboard foul as they tacked and attempted to return. Not to be. The American boat stalled coming back onto the wind--think, a serious case of the slows--while the Kiwi boat accelerated out of the trap, crossed clean, and started ahead with better speed in a breeze of about 9 knots.

It was a classic case of overachieving. Dickson's post-race take: "New Zealand wiggled out, but we have a lot of strengths in our team. You just have to take a deep breath and get on with it, do what you do well, chip away at them."

Which translates into rounding together at the top mark (New Zealand was credited with a 3-second lead) and sailing over them on the run for a lead at the bottom of 24 seconds, second weather mark of 43 seconds, and finish line delta of 38. This is the second weather mark rounding, with BMW Oracle setting its kite and New Zealand still beating upwind.

© Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

Dickson's reminder: "We're only halfway through the round robins." As for the loss to the Spanish team? "The day was tough, tricky, shifty. It's hard to go out there and win them all."

China Team will be back on the course on Sunday, according to trimmer Wearn Haw Tan. The work team that flew in from France freed the sailing crew on Saturday from further work on the boat, so they'll be reasonably refreshed as they get back to business, looking for their first win. Their boat suffered a keel box failure, but they made it back to the dock with boat and mast mostly intact to relaminate the relevant parts. As Wearn Haw Tan put it, "Better in the shed than in the sea."

Subtext: They're installing the mast at first light and tuning in the morning to race in the afternoon.

Round Robin 2. Once it seemed an impossible dream—Kimball