Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pick a Headline, Any Headline

Having done a stint as a writer for the movies, I know the hit-with-a-brickbat feeling when the director tells you to go rewrite the script. And rewriting the script is just what we're doing now in Valencia.

Is the headline, "Luna Rossa Wins!" or is it, "BMW Oracle Loses!"

Each of the pairings is now 2-1, but the 01:14 Spanish win today in Race 3—winning the prestart, laying a foul on Dean Barker, and then doing everything right around the racecourse—has not dented the air of inevitability around the expected, eventual, advance of Emirates Team New Zealand to the challenger finals.

The 00:34 win of Luna Rossa over BMW Oracle, however, does change the picture. In the minds of many, BMW Oracle had built up an air of inevitability regarding its own advance to the challenger finals, and that balloon is bust.

The balloon, that is. The inevitability. Not the ability of BMW Oracle to win races. At least there's nobody suggesting they threw the race to add drama to the Louis Vuitton Cup. And you know what? I'm still not ready to move my chips off 98.

©Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

But this was not a fluke. James Spithill got the best of the prestart. He had Luna Rossa on the line with speed on port tack at the gun. His final exchange with Chris Dickson had left BMW Oracle crowding the starboard-tack layline, burning speed to stay behind the start line, and then pinching around the mark and starting downspeed. For a long way up the beat you could figure that Luna Rossa's small advantage came directly out of that. And then—

Working up to the top mark, ITA-94 was on the right of USA-98, and there was a right shift that gradually moved top-to-bottom the full length the course. That was gravy on the plate for ITA-94. The first cross took place almost at the layline, and the rounding was a 29-second delta. "No passing lanes" was the universal description of Race 3, and that was that.

Torben gets religion

Five-time Olympic medalist Torben Grael took a heap of criticism in the first two races for playing it loose, ignoring the keep-a-close-cover testament of the match-race bible in favor of playing the course. In one race it worked out OK for him in his job as tactician for Luna Rossa. In one race it did not. Today he acted out the words of the match-race bible like a true believer:

USA-98 gybes; ITA-94 gybes.

USA-98 tacks; ITA-94 tacks.

Get it?

It was a different kind of racecourse, and it called for a different style of play. Grael did not meet the press after Race 3, but I'm pretty sure that's the gist of what he would have said. This one did not have the wide-open randomness of race one, nor the puffy streakiness of race two. Did I mention, "no passing lanes?"

Nobody is better at finding passing lanes than Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle team, skippered by Dickson with Gavin Brady making tactical calls. And if there had been passing lanes, New Zealand might have found a way around Desafío Español.

Reverse the positions between Desafío Español and New Zealand, and I'd probably be reporting "another workmanlike performance" on the part of the Kiwis in getting ahead and staying ahead of the Spanish team. Instead it was Karol Jablonski on the helm and John Cutler on tactics in what, for them was a validation of their underdog philosophy of going out every day expecting to win. They won the race on every leg, after winning the prestart. Jablonski, asked what he'll be doing on Thursday (a no-race day) wryly replied, "Well, the original plan was to go out and practice prestarts . . . "

©Chris Cameron/ETNZ

About New Zealand's penalty. Full marks to Dean Barker for describing it simply as "an error I made." Many of us who watched that port-starboard incident thought it was a call that could have gone either way, but that's part of the game. You live with it and you sail.

Now here's a thought. After the vagaries of Race 2, BMW Oracle navigator Peter Isler called it, "completely maddening to sail against someone who won't tack or gybe with you." Today, after the all-new, got-religion Torben sat on top of the white team all the way around the course (Andy Horton is in on the tactics aboard Luna Rossa; I'd better acknowledge that), I was wanting to ask Isler how he felt about that, but strategist Eric Doyle was thrown to the press instead. Doyle's take: "Today was more consistent, and they sailed as conditions dictated."

Numbers that matter

Number of races lost by New Zealand since April 28

Number of marks BMW Oracle has rounded ahead of Luna Rossa in the semis

Number of helmsmen showing up at the press conference

(We miss you, Chris)

Quote of the day

James Spithill, 27, helmsman, Luna Rossa, sailing in his third America's Cup, on losing a big lead—and Race 2—in the last few seconds before the finish:
"That was a tough one to swallow. A result like that could crumble some teams, but there is nothing you can do to change that result. The thing you can do is focus on the next race."

No racing on Thursday.

Friday, Race 4. Maybe further re-modes? Different sails. A different breeze?

Same writers. Oh well—Kimball