Sunday, May 27, 2007

Blood in the Water

If I'm in trouble, I'd as soon call a Kiwi as a cop. Kiwis have a way of getting things done.

If I want to have a good time, bring on the Italians. Those people know how to live.

That sets up a dilemma, but it's up to them to sort it out. Cup down under, Cup in Italy, if either can get through Alinghi. They've both spilled blood to get this far.

(Note: I'm going walkabout, dear reader, and I probably won't be updating until we're racing again.)

Come Friday, June 1, we'll have our Race One of the challengers' final knockout round, and we'll have a serious look at the next challenger for the America's Cup. We won't know for a while, of course, whether that's going to be the Italian boat with the Italian backing and an Aussie at the helm and a Brazilian on tactics . . .

Luna Rossa, ITA 94
Francesco de Angelis, skipper
James Spithill, helmsman
Torben Grael, tactician

Or the Kiwi boat with the Middle East (plus Kiwi) backing and a Kiwi on the helm and an American on tactics . . .

Emirates Team New Zealand
Grant Dalton, bossman
Dean Barker, helmsman and skipper
Terry Hutchinson, tactician

You've got your Italian flash. Even if it's embodied for the moment in a nice, wholesome Aussie boy on the wheel who never says anything colorful, Luna Rossa as a team has the bella figura that appeals to the hot-blooded Mediterranean coast of Europe. In trouncing the supposedly mighty BMW Oracle team in the semifinals, Luna Rossa took the biggest scalp, so far, in America's Cup 32, and by doing the job mostly in the prestart and first cross, Spithill et al set themselves up as quick-draw gladiators. Luna Rossa's Kevlar-clad base has style, molte Italiano, and Valencia is packed with air horn-wielding true believers. If ITA 94 continues to raise its game at the rate that shocked BMW Oracle, and if Spithill strikes fire in the prestart duel, these guys could get through.

Then you've got your Down Under can-do spirit. Every team here has (or had) a mission, but for the Kiwis it's a mission and a half. Team New Zealand is a national institution that suffered a public meltdown in '03 and served up the America's Cup to Alinghi without a proper fight. Skipper Dean Barker had come to the Cup game as understudy to Russell Coutts and was not directly/uniquely responsible for the failures, but he was publicly on the helm and has been living on a knife-edge since. Barker does not have an illustrious string of world championship titles or Olympic medals to argue his case, but he does have the solid backing of Grant Dalton. In Team New Zealand 2007, that's what it takes. New and revived, they've lost some races, but they haven't shown a crack yet. If sheer competence and an over-my-dead-body determination are the key, then Alinghi will be looking at some very beady eyeballs come the America's Cup match.

As ETNZ tactician Terry Hutchinson sees it:

On Luna Rossa vs. ETNZ . . .
The two teams have been racing each other for two years, and we've split our races 50-50. This match will come down to who does the subtle things well.

On defining the subtle things . . .
A lot of our racing with Spain was decided by who got the first lee bow. If you can come off the line on the other guy's hip and live there for two minutes, that's huge. And NZL 92 is pretty happy making lots of tacks, downspeed if need be.

On Torben Grael's loosey goosey covering style . . .
The Luna Rossa guys have been fearless with some of their calls. We're happier with a two length lead; that's our style. Our weather team gives us a heads-up as to whether to aim for a tight race or a loose race.

On the celebrated starting skills of Luna Rossa helmsman James Spithill . . .
It's not smart to put pressure on Dean to win every prestart, and when someone has the upper hand, you don't go for some high-risk maneuver and maybe take a penalty. At that point we're happy following them into the course.

On comparing the boats . . .
I think the score will come down to how we go with them when it's windy, and how they go with us when it's lighter. Their hull shape pushes them that way [toward liking more breeze]. Maybe 10-12 knots versus 14-16. The BMW Oracle guys tell us that Luna Rossa has definitely gotten faster.

Oh yes, BMW Oracle . . .

When you analyze their first-cross percentages from the round robin racing, the numbers aren't as high as you might expect. And comparing ETNZ to Oracle? I think we have a better team chemistry. It's one of those intangibles. You can't put a dollar amount on it. Even in the low times, people are still working as hard as they can. As you get farther into these things, the game becomes risk management, and I don't think we've peaked."

On the outlook . . .
We expect every race to be a nailbiter.

As if I have any nails left—Kimball