Sunday, May 20, 2007

5 to 1 by 4 to 2

Three questions scream out in the wake of the semifinal round, Race 6.

1) If James Spithill on the helm of Luna Rossa can hand Chris Dickson his tail and dispatch BMW Oracle in six races, what's in store for Dean Barker and Emirates Team New Zealand?

2) Could the widely assumed, highly touted superiority of the Defender be as ephemeral as the once widely assumed, highly touted superiority of the Challenger of Record?

3) Is ACC the most expensive "one design" class in the world?

Luna Rossa over BMW Oracle by 00:33, five races to one, and done. Luna Rossa advances to the final round of the Louis Vuitton challenger eliminations.

Desafío Español over Emirates Team New Zealand by 00:15, four races to two, and not done. New Zealand goes to the final round, probably, but not until and unless they win one more race.

In the cacophony that followed Luna Rossa's victory, I was surrounded by a sea of excited people speaking in Italian. There were only a few words that I understood, and only two that kept popping up, and they were spoken with a certain relish: "Dean Barker." The Italian fans, I think, have the idea that James Spithill might be able to hand him something. And those air horns are taking over. Until Luna Rossa went up 3-1, it was mainly a sendoff thing. On Sunday there was a din of air horns surrounding the entire passage of Luna Rossa through the Darsena, both ways. These folks had to find a thin spot in the crowd on the far side of the harbor because they had a special project. Quick, what's the only country that had three challengers?

Luna Rossa has raised its game in a dazzling way. The mantra in this game is that you keep improving all the way to the Cup; don't peak too soon. According to Chris Dickson, his most recent opponents improved everything.

It's been exactly 20 years since a US boat first entered a Louis Vuitton Cup final—to select a challenger to go against the defender in Australia—and for the first time in those 20 years, there will be no US boat in the finals that begin here in Valencia on June 1. We expect it to be New Zealand that meets Luna Rossa, but should Desafío Español defy the odds and win through against the Kiwis, the excitement here would go over the top. This is the Spanish team meeting the public after its 15-second win over New Zealand on Sunday. Monday is an offday, and the champagne was flying . . .

It's not hard to imagine rearranging a few events here, a few points there, and then USA-98 wins the round robin racing, chooses Desafío Español as its opponent, and things go pretty much as they're actually going, with USA-98 substituted for NZL-92 and the press still speculating about all that magic that Oracle might be holding back.

Instead we had one of those minor firsts on Sunday, with BMW Oracle and Desafío Español each going out early to practice prestarts against the other on a line set for the purpose. Maybe it helped the Spanish team.

And then--

Luna Rossa vs. BMW Oracle
Sten Mohr was sent in to replace Chris Dickson on the helm, but there was no new look to the prestart dance. James Spithill chased Mohr around inside the box, secured the left-end start that he was looking for, and started at the pin, on starboard, with speed, while Mohr luffed to clear the committee boat on port. Luna Rossa tacked to cover, got the first shift, and did everything right from that point on.

Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

Desafío Español vs. Emirates Team New Zealand
This prestart was a tougher read. It looked to me as if Dean Barker (and tactician Terry Hutchinson) wanted the left and were in position to force Karol Jablonski, helming the Spanish boat (with John Cutler on tactics), to get off the top of him and leave New Zealand with a clean, starboard-tack start. Instead, after Jablonski tacked, Barker followed and appeared to fall into a spot that he couldn't live with. He was slow, and tacked, and with that paid a price that may well have made the difference when the two boats came together up the course. Jablonski was in control and ahead early in the first leg and stayed there all the way around the track.


Alinghi has never looked anything but strong, but the same was true (once) of BMW Oracle. In six races, Oracle did not lead around a single open mark of the course. Could a challenger maintain the same sort of momentum that Luna Rossa has shown—and storm Alinghi?

The ACC rule has been jiggered to tighten the box (it´s not really one design, of course), with the result that even teams on a limited budget—helped by the reality check of an occasional pre-event—are producing fast boats. There are so-called one-design fleets that aren't this close. Umpteen millions of dollars deep into R&D, somebody calls the wrong side of a shift, or one component breaks, and it's the nail that lost the shoe that lost the horse . . .

BMW Oracle had the best of everything. Even Henri Lloyd's R&D for the team clothing was trickle-down quality, with different designs and fabrics for different specialties aboard—just one example among many.

In 2003, Larry Ellison's Oracle campaign was riven with tension, dissension, and skipper firings, but Oracle made it to the challenger finals before going down to Alinghi, which went on to win the America's Cup and bring it to Valencia. For 2007, Ellison put Dickson in charge of his program top to bottom, as CEO, skipper, and helmsman making even granular decisions. It seemed to be working, until it wasn't, and BMW Oracle came up short in the semis. Contrast: Francesco de Angelis, Luna Rossa skipper, started out driving the boat and then decided to separate the functions and delegate the driving. His next (likely) rival is Team New Zealand, where team boss Grant Dalton never was the driver, but as a floater in the crew has the same sort of big-picture overview, combining shoreside and on-deck responsibilities without trying to be everything.

Was it right to bounce Dickson off the helm for Sten Mohr in what turned out to be the final race? Oracle lost anyway, so Ellison could be criticized for that decision. But if Dickson had kept the helm and lost, Ellison would have been criticized for freezing like a deer in the headlights. When you're losing, you can't win.

In 2003, James Spithill was part of the hapless One World campaign put out by Oracle. What goes around comes around.

Twenty years after Chris Dickson arrived on the America's Cup scene as New Zealand's wonderboy, he has yet to win the Cup, and he goes down on the sword of the new Aussie wonderboy, James Spithill. But I bet it's been one hell of a ride. The history of the America's Cup is the history of sailboat racing, and it is populated exclusively by people who dare. Shrinking violets need not apply. It couldn't have been easy for Dickson to meet the press after Race 6, but he knew what to do: Start by congratulating Francesco and James for daring and succeeding. Thus far. We're still a full month away from the America's Cup match. And there are more people who want the Cup than can have it.

Quote Unquote James Spithill

On staying in Valencia last winter while BMW Oracle and Emirates Team New Zealand two-boat tested in Auckland, and Alinghi did the same in Dubai . . .
As it turned out it was a good decision to stay here. The weather was good, and we accomplished our goals.

On making big strides . . .
A lot of credit goes to the guys who are sailing ITA-86. We've been fortunate to be able to put two good teams on the water, and they've pushed us hard in our training.

On the Race 6 start . . .
Torben was liking the right, but the pin was a bit forward and you have to like that. Then the guys started to see some stuff [up the course] on the left, and we made our decision to go for it.

On combining tight and only-slightly-loose cover in Race 6 . . .
In Race 2 [passed in the last few lengths to the finish] we learnt our lesson. No matter how big the lead was, the boys kept focus.

Quote Unquote Chris Dickson

On being replaced on the helm . . .
That was Larry's call. It's his call to make. And you have to give credit to Sten Mohr for stepping up. We call it a ‘hospital pass’ in rugby. It's when the ball is coming your way and you know you’re going to get hammered.

On watching the wheels come off . . .
We're a strong team with huge depth. We don't have any glaring weaknesses, but we got outclassed in a number of areas. Every America's Cup cycle is different, and what is needed to win is different. This wasn't determined by any one thing. Luna Rossa has improved upwind and downwind. They've improved their sails, crew work, windshift calls. A month ago you might have said that we had the competitive edge. Luna Rossa has grown.

On the future . . .
Larry is committed to continuing with the program. Me, I'll probably take the family to Disneyland on the way home.

Hey Roy--why don't you see that Chris and family get a discount. Tell the girl at the gate that he looks like this, but he probably won't be dressed the way he is in this shot by our friend Gilles Martin-Raget.

No racing on Monday. Spain meets New Zealand on Tuesday to see if Desafío Español can stay alive alive alive—Kimball