Britain’s INEOS Team UK produced a stunning form reversal on the first day of racing in the America’s Cup challenger series at Auckland on Friday, beating both of its Prada Cup rivals.
Skipper Ben Ainslee steered Team UK’s radically improved yacht Britannia to wins over United States challenger American Magic by 1 minute, 23 seconds and Italian challenger Luna Rossa by 28 seconds.
The British challenger lost all six of its races in the pre-Christmas America’s Cup World Series, withdrawing from one race and being lapped in its others as it struggled with problems of equipment and boat handling.
Feverish work by the British team’s shore crew over the last month produced a quantum leap in Britannia’s performance and the lame duck, which couldn’t get up on its foils in the light winds of the World Series, became a flying machine in the 10 to 14 knot winds in which Friday’s races were contested.
First it sailed away from the highly-rated New York Yacht Club-backed American Magic and its well-performed Patriot, then won a much tighter race against Luna Rossa.
Four-time Olympic sailing gold medalist Ainslee told a pre-race news conference Thursday the British team had left no stone unturned in its efforts to make Britannia fly.
“Since the World Series we have a new rudder, a new elevator, a new mast, a new mainsail, a new headsail, we have put aero modifications to the hull and we have changed the system to the hull… so we have been quite busy,” Ainslee said.
“The team’s been working flat-out since the World Series. I have to give them a huge amount of credit for that, the effort they’ve put in. They haven’t had a day out, a lot of our shore team, our engineers working flat out around the clock to put into action these changes, these upgrades to the boat.”
Ainslee praised the sailing and shore crews again after Britannia left Patriot more than a kilometer in its wake in race one of the challengers series for the Prada Cup which runs from Friday until Feb. 22. The winner among the three challengers who receive a point for every win in the four-round round-robin, will race defender Team New Zealand in the 36th Cup match from March 6.
“That feels better than six losses or whatever it was,” Ainslee said. “We left it a little bit late but nice to find the pace when it counts in this breeze.
“I’ve got to say that race was for the guys back at the dock, our designers, our engineers, the shore team, boat-builders. They’ve had just an epic two or three weeks turning this boat around.
Britannia was clearly faster than Patriot on Friday but it was also superbly sailed by Ainslee and by tactician Giles Scott, who spotted stronger wind pressure on the right-hand side of the course. On Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, the imposing bulk of North Head often produces a wind-strengthening effect.
Ainslee positioned Britannia to start to windward of Patriot and first took the American yacht to the border on starboard tack, before tacking back to take control of the right. Britannia gained and made the first gate 11 seconds ahead of American Magic, even after putting in an extra tack to head back to the right.
The British yacht extended its lead on a long jibe on the first downwind leg — the second of six legs — reaching speeds of around 41 knots. By protecting the right, it extended its lead on all six legs.
Ainslee also won the start in Team UK’s second race of the day against Luna Rossa, allowing him to select the right. Britannia led by 12 seconds at the first mark, 22 seconds at the second, 23 seconds at the third and by the same margin at the fourth.
Britannia touched down briefly rounding the mark after the fourth leg but was straight back up on its foils, providing a measure of the improvement it has achieved since the World Series. The boat handling of the British crew was outstanding, but for a single poor tack on the fifth leg against Luna Rossa which allowed the Italian team to reduce the lead to 13 seconds at the final gate.
”That’s credit to the designers, the engineers and the shore team,” Ainslee said of his boat’s improvements. “Those are the guys who have worked around the clock to make that happen and we were glad we were able to do them credit out here on the water.”
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