Written by Rebecca Hayter
Photography by Studio Borlenghi
Heading into Race 2, Round Robin 3 on Saturday, the stakes were high: a win for Ineos UK would send Sir Ben Ainslie direct to the finals of the Prada Cup with five wins straight; a win for Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli would give Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni a big morale boost and a chance to fight again on Sunday for that first spot in the final.
The match will go down in the annals of America’s Cup racing as a box-office hit. It had it all – conflict, suspense. The wildcard was the wind. We just didn’t know who was the bad guy and who was the good guy, as all the skippers seemed like jolly good chaps.
The race started on time. And stopped. And started. That was the suspense. The wind shifts were messing with the race committee; there was an issue with the cunningham onboard Ineos Team UK, so they played their 15-minute delay card, a new feature introduced only that morning.
By the time both boats charged across the line, there was a drum roll in the heart of every spectator.
On the first beat, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli attacked, luffing Ineos Team UK in a move that is quite frankly scary for boats doing 35 knots with foiling arms sticking out like tangly branches. Ineos Team UK was to windward and had to keep clear. She briefly fell off her foils. Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli took the lead and was looking good.
But the British team was nailing the shifts, and was up with Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli at the top gate. Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli flew in on port and tacked on top of Ineos Team UK but, that close to the gate, Luna Ross Prada Pirelli had to give Ineos Team UK room at the mark. The two boats went around the mark in a perfect half-circle with Ineos Team UK on the inside and exiting first.
In a race that would see nine lead changes and more than 50 knots boat speed, the wind shifts put Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli ahead. Then Ineos Team UK was ahead. Then Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli was ahead. At gate four, Ineos Team UK pulled one of its signature slick moves and escaped cover to take the opposite side from Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli.
Heading into the finish, Jimmy Spithill had one last card. On the final cross, Prada Pirelli was on starboard gybe and Ineos Team UK needed to cross in front. Its issue with the cunningham meant it could not sail as low as Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. The Italians dialled down to try and get a penalty against Ineos Team UK. Sir Ben Ainslie later said it was about as close as it was possible to get, less than five metres between the boats at the cross, but the umpire decided it was legal. Ineos Team UK’s Britannia headed for the finish line in front.
Sir Ben Ainslie and his team – the underdog in the pre-Christmas regatta –maintained their unbeaten winning streak in the round robins: six wins, if you count the ghost race against American Magic, which is still undergoing repair from last Sunday’s catastrophic sky-jump. Ineos Team UK has clinched its spot in the finals of the Prada Cup and been awarded the Christmas Cup, which was not awarded in the Christmas Race due to light winds.
That was the race in which Emirates Team New Zealand lapped Ineos Team UK in light winds, so the Christmas Cup is a nice symbol of how far the Brits have come.
“It’s a nice cup,” said Sir Ben Ainslie, “but it’s not the one they want.”
The British team now has nearly three weeks to work on their boat and develop it, leaving Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli to contest the semi-finals next weekend.