Thursday, April 26, 2007

Luna Rossa Si! España Si! USA! USA!

It was one of those days when the headline changes by the hour. How could you resist the Swedish come-from-behind with a penalty turn completed in time for a five-second win over Areva?

How could you resist a Luna Rossa win that is sure to go down hard in the New Zealand camp, which would have had the race except for a prestart penalty for tacking too close?

And then, in a race started well into the cocktail hour, there were those all-red Latin Rascals led by Flavio Favini driving Mascalzone Latino, stealing the favored side at the start from BMW Oracle and holding them off in the fiercest, most relentless downspeed tacking duel we've seen here so far. Could the Mascalzone guys repeat the upset they pulled over New Zealand? This was the real thing. Chris Dickson driving for the white team coming at them again and again. Favini playing it close. Gavin Brady waving flags at the umpires, yelling for a foul call. Dickson coming at them again and again. And then the red team cracking. Favini playing it too close. No question. Dickson turning to avoid the collision. And the flag from the umpires and the red-team meltdown, trailing big-time at the first mark with a penalty still to burn off. BMW Oracle looking every ounce the accomplished, well financed, well practiced, confident monster of an opponent.

© Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

We're a long way from the end of the challenger selection, and those who move on to the semis and finals are sure to re-mode at least once. None of the big guys have shown us everything they've got. But the undefeated record of BMW Oracle to this point, and the way they devoured the Italians today, builds a mindset. Pierre Orphanidis, who writes the Valencia Sailing blog, fell into that mindset when I said something about the race and his reply was, "Yes, but can they beat Alinghi?"

That's not really the right question, not yet, but I understand.

The take from BMW Oracle navigator Peter Isler: "Everything changed. All of a sudden instead of a close race we had some breathing room. Now we look to the races on Friday. It will be very important for us to get a feel for how our speed stacks up against Spain and New Zealand. Obviously it's important to get to the semifinals, but there's value to being at the top because you get to pick your opponent—which of course gives you an opportunity to make a regrettable mistake."

The take from Mascalzone mainsail trimmer Marco Constant: "The weather mark was slightly out of position, and with the current we were playing up the middle of the track. It was our mistake. We thought we were pushing them out to the layline, but in the process they were gaining on the tacks." Comparisons? "I think they have an appendage package that's slicker than ours. I think they have a rig package that slicker than ours. They're experienced. The downwind leg was one-sided, but they set themselves up very well against us. That's why they are where they are, and that's why we are where we are."

Spain had a good day too with Desafío Español racking up wins against Germany and Sweden (Victory Challenge was not so lucky against the Spanish).

And there's no escaping the local angle. I watched some television this morning, and America's Cup racing was in the news, and it was all Desafío Español, with reason enough. Their day moved them into fourth and dropped Mascalzone to fifth in the standings after 9 of 20 flights.

I remind you yet again, gentle reader, that amidst the dramas on the racecourse and ashore, all we're doing in the round robins is sorting a final four. Then we wipe the slate clean and go into the semifinal round to eliminate two more boats. A few days ago I thought that perhaps two spots were in play. Now I'm thinking only one, and I figure it's between Desafío Español and Mascalzone Latino to get that seat.

But predictions are dangerous. What am I doing? Making a nomination for least successful move of the day, that's what: The Kiwis closing on the finish in light air, with a come-from-behind lead and a penalty to burn off, putting up a jib and turning up, hoping to force Luna Rossa up with them, away from the finish, hoping to then tack through, completing the penalty turn and zip down to finish in front. Zip being a relative term in a soft breeze. It didn't work for diddly. James Spithill on the helm of Luna Rossa, and Torben Grael on top of the brain trust, didn't buy it for a minute. Instead of putting up a jib in a defensive maneuver, they kept trucking under spinnaker, sailed across the Kiwi bow, and left Dean Barker and company behind to do a forlorn penalty turn all on their lonesome. Delta 00:48.

Team manager Grant Dalton's take: "At the back of our minds right from the start was that we needed a comfort zone of more than 30 sec to complete the penalty. We weren’t going to achieve that by sticking close to Luna Rossa. They’re too good for that. We went for a big separation to the right where there was more pressure on the first beat, that paid a little but we did not get the gain that we needed."

© Chris Cameron/ETNZ

I've posted the points standings at the bottom, but on the way through the day I sat down with an interesting guy. Here's that story.

Making Shosholoza Sing

Whether they make the final-four cut or not—and yesterday's racing makes you think they've already peaked—Team Shosholoza is having a good run. In that, you have to include principal designer Jason Ker, who has taken this a long way, ten years after getting his first private commission to design a raceboat.

RSA 83 was optimized for the now. "We knew the weather could be random in April," Ker said. "The breeze could be light, or it could be strong, and we'd have to be ready for either. Going into May we expect the breeze to be light, but consistently light, and we're designed for that and maybe for early June, but not late June when you expect the seabreeze to be up. Alinghi is clearly designed with the expectation of racing in a stronger seabreeze."

The game with Shosholoza is to see how long they can survive. Unlike the big guys, they're showing everything they've got. The corollary, with the teams who expect to be contending in the finals, is that they will re-mode as they go.

Even with RSA 83 radically redesigned for 2007—it was the first V5 boat built, and the new bow gets rid of a lot of reserve buoyancy to help the boat cut through waves—Ker said that, "The potential hasn't changed massively. A lot of our improvements have been in sails and sailing. For us as a small team, there has been a lot to come to grips with. We get better every time out, but it's harder to find the gains, to find a new finesse, condition to condition. To continue to the next Cup, and to get to the next level, we'll have to have two boats. Then you can have training sessions where you're in control, and you make sure you're learning what you want to learn."

And what's his life these days?

After two years in Spain, his family of a wife and two kids are happily ensconced and multilingual and enjoying Valencia, "Though I haven't seen as much of it as I should."

Well, that's the Cup life. He's a Brit by birth, and there were 14 months in Cape Town before Valencia, and we don't know what comes next, do we?

Quote Unquote: "There are some things you can learn only by being aboard the race boat. There are other things you can learn only by not being aboard. I spend my days in a chase boat behind Shosholoza. I observe heel, the mast, sail set-ups, comparisons, maneuvers in which the guys on the boat are too caught up to see what's going on. And sometimes it's best to wait, to look at the data after the race, rather than make an instant judgement."

April 26: The Goodies

1. BMW Oracle, 19 points
2. Emirates Team New Zealand, 16
3. Luna Rossa, 15
4. Desafío Español , 15
5. Mascalzone Latino Capitalia, 14
6. Victory Challenge, 12
7. Shosholoza, 10
8. Areva, 7
9. United Internet Team Germany, 3
10. +39, 2
11. China Team, 1

Friday forecast: North-east, 12 to 16 knots, cloudy with possible rain, 13ºC to 19ºC and 70% humidity.