Sunday, April 22, 2007

Proof of Concept

Okay, the heat is seriously on to get in a full eliminations series for the challengers. But there's another story here. Proof of concept of those ill-named Acts. Shosholoza ahead of BMW Oracle for 2+ legs of their race. The South African team was outmatched, but there they were, mixing it up, holding BMW Oracle out of the advantaged right-hand side of the course, giving a heavy-weight team a scare.

Photo by Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

When Shosholoza first came to Valencia, there were times when it hurt to watch them sail, but they had great spirit and a great fight song and people took them to heart. They've said all along this is a learning-curve "next time" effort, while holding onto a dream of making the cut to the semifinals this time. They're no farther from that after today's expected loss that, for them, was a win of sorts. They've come a long way.

But could they have done that if they hadn't been in competition for two years? I don't think so. Aside from offering brand exposure for sponsors, the pre-event racing gave this team, and others, the opportunity to measure themselves, learn, and grow. Take that away, leave them training in isolation or perhaps sparring with one of the other second-tier teams, then toss them into the ring with the likes of BMW Oracle and they would be swallowed in one gulp.

It was enough to make me wonder if Larry Ellison, one of the architects of the pre-event format, might have been having regrets as he looked up the course at the transom of Shosholoza. But I think not. Restructuring the America's Cup is his personal project. It's the opposite of the old days, when a single challenger would show up in Newport to try his luck.

After the race, Shosholoza navigator Mark Lagesse stopped by and said, "The team is upbeat. I'm a bit down because I think we should have won. But everything went well except the left shift. That's where we lost a five-length lead. We didn’t lose it on the gate."

Oh, the gate.

At the end of the first run, Shosholoza went for the port-rounding mark at the gate, gybing to get there. The jib was slow coming across, however, and the spinnaker did not fill quickly on the new side, which makes it harder to set up for the takedown, and the kite went shrimping. In a move unique to the America's Cup, the crew quickly (though not instantly) released the sail to be picked up by their support boat. It's not unheard of around here. In fact it has a name. It's a "tender drop." You can hardly see the tender here -- a rubber boat-- but that's the Shosholoza support team picking up the sail.

Photo by Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

"There are quite a few languages on the boat," Largesse said. "Eventually we just said, heck, let it go. We didn't lose much on that."

From what I saw, BMW Oracle had more going for it than just one shift. I'd still put my money on them every time out against Shosholoza, even if they don't have a fight song to match. Gilles got this rather nice shot today.

Photo by Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

Elsewhere, China Team had episodes of looking not bad, and sailmaker/trimmer Sylvain Barrielle was upbeat. He thinks they're going to have some Shosholoza moments (my words) before this is over. He says, "It will happen."

Am I alone in thinking that China Team has the prettiest boat out there?

Desafio Español meanwhile beat up on Areva pretty badly in the prestart, keeping the French on the defensive and downspeed with the Spanish enjoying full speed and maneuverability. On the course they traded the lead a few times, with the French taking over when the Spanish team broke its spinnaker pole. Olivier Douillard, the guy who handles the traveler and also goes up the mast on Areva, commented on coming from behind: "You keep the pressure on and people make mistakes. We're happy to take it."

And here's an interesting comparison:

BMW Oracle and Shosholoza split at the start, with BMW Oracle going left and Shosholoza going right. But the American team quickly tacked to sail in the same water as their opponents. In an earlier start, Luna Rossa went left while United Internet Team Germany went right. But the Italians waited something like 4 minutes, 20 seconds to tack, and when they did they were behind. Something about the courage of your convictions, I guess, but they're the boat that most people would bet on to win that matchup, so I might have expected to see them attempt to do it mano a mano instead of buying real estate for leverage. Especially when it turned out the leverage was against them. Not that it ultimately mattered. They gained the lead and rounded the first mark ahead by about one second. Finish line delta: 50 seconds.

The background story (step over here, speak quietly) is the faceoff between the challengers and event management, with the challengers wanting to extend their series and event management saying something on the order of, tough luck.

It's festering. Yeah, that's the word. Festering. Not for the first time are big egos and big muscle colliding in the world of the America's Cup. Let's hope it doesn't become the story of the regatta. (See the web story on the home page.)

Now, with this many races on two separate courses, I can't keep up with everything, so I'm going to throw in the towel and paste in the press release of the day. Brace yourself. Here it comes.

Valencia, 22 April, 2007 - The light conditions prevailing at the Louis Vuitton Cup continued on Sunday but the gradient breeze proved just strong and stable enough for fair racing. One flight of racing was completed in front of a large spectator fleet eager to see America's Cup action.

Flight 3 started after a brief postponement in 8 knots of Northeasterly breeze. This flight should have been routine for most of the bigger teams over their smaller rivals, but this was not the case in many of the matches.

Most surprising was China Team which led Magnus Holmberg's powerful Victory Challenge team for two thirds of the first beat. They were then overhauled by the Swedes who proceeded to extend, scoring the highest finish delta (3:50) of the five races.

There was more upset for BMW ORACLE Racing when Team Shosholoza led the American boat off the start, again claiming the favourable right side. Paolo Cian and his young Shosholoza crew did a superb job fending off Chris Dickson's vastly experienced team and led them around the first lap of the race course, despite dropping their spinnaker in the water at the leeward gate. But in the closing stages of the second beat the South Africans were finally overhauled and Dickson then prudently covered Shosholoza to preserve the win.

United Internet Team Germany also looked strong on the right of the first beat against Luna Rossa. Behind the wheel of the Italian boat James Spithill engaged the German team's Jesper Bank in a tacking duel in the latter stages of the first beat to take control. While Luna Rossa led for the rest of the race it was by no means a walk over for the Italian team, who won by just 50 seconds.

On the south course, there was further upset in the match between Areva Challenge and Desafío Español when the French underdogs led off the line. They were eventually overtaken by the Spanish team who led round the top mark. But disaster struck on the Spanish boat when, during their first gybe, the end of their spinnaker pole broke. Although Karol Jablonski and his Spanish team caught up on the second beat, they were crippled by their broken pole on the run to the finish and Sebastien Col and has French team went on to secure an important win.

In the final match on the south course +39 Challenge gained the right at the start, but were unable to match the pace of Emirates Team New Zealand who scored a large win against Iain Percy's team.

With the wind going soft in the late afternoon, Flight 4 was postponed until Monday, when Flights 4 and 5 are now scheduled.