Written by By Rebecca Hayter
“It’s been a wild ride,” said Sir Ben Ainslie as he and his team INEOS TEAM UK gathered themselves following their defeat in the Prada Cup Final. Talk about troughs and peaks and, finally, a trough.
On Britannia, affectionately known as Rita, they had sailed through it all with a complete drubbing in December’s America’s Cup World Series followed by their cape-flying success during the round robins, the latter of which awarded Sir Ainslie the Christmas Cup.
“It’s a nice cup,” he said. “But it’s not the one we came for.”
But as INEOS TEAM UK waited for an opponent in the Finals, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli spent the semi-finals honing their skills. Making mistake after mistake until they didn’t.
At that stage, American Magic had experienced its own peak-to-trough journey, but Jimmy Spithill was adamant that racing was the best way to train. And he was right. It was hard to know just how sharp they would be.
“Sir Ben Ainslie is definitely one those guys who, funnily enough, has made me better,” said Spithill, paying credit to INEOS TEAM UK handing them a Must Try Harder card in the round robins. “Because anytime you go up against this guy, you have to be at the top of your game.”
When Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli lined up against INEOS TEAM UK during the Finals, it had slick moves and a race-dominating high mode in light airs. What a weapon against a team who had consistently struggled in the same light conditions that dominated the series.
But winning of seven-out-of-eight-races isn’t something that just comes with the wind.
After their semi-final thrashing by INEOS TEAM UK, Luna Rossa developed new foils and sails, a modified mast and improved its in-house software, allowing for an exact time-on-distance for the start and precise data for boundaries and manoeuvres against other boats – something that may have been a factor, considering the number of boundary penalties INEOS TEAM UK suffered during the final.
But there’s also the underneath hull shape. Early on, we were obsessed with the skiff-versus-scow debate. We’ve since moved on to other factors, but as Challenger of Record, Luna Rossa had an early insight as it co-wrote the America’s Cup Protocol with Emirates Team New Zealand. Luna Rossa had immense confidence in its design process, which is why its second-generation boat is so similar to its first. Its skiff-like hull foils easily and effectively recover from splashdown.
That was a weakness for INEOS TEAM UK. In the light, it needed a big jib to get out of the water, even if that sail choice wasn’t optimum for the race. Ironically, at those speeds, a big jib can create more drag than speed advantage.
But perhaps the biggest benefit for Luna Rossa from its semi-finals against American Magic was the opportunity to polish its unusual situation of having two helmsmen, who alternated with each other as flight controllers: the laconic but tough Australian Jimmy Spithill and the passionate Italian Francesco Bruni.
Two strong, extremely talented personalities could have compromised each other, but under Max Sirena’s leadership, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Sirena says that he has the world’s best Italian America’s Cup skipper on port and the world’s best Australian America’s Cup skipper on starboard, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
“It’s been a difficult process,” he chuckled. “They are both super-talented. And they are pretty different. They respect each other and they push one against the other to get better and better.”
In taking the congratulations, Spithill took a swipe at another adversary: the media.
“In the round robins, a lot of you guys sitting in this room were writing us off, but we worked hard, and we just got stronger and stronger,” he said.
Although Sir Ainslie is bitterly disappointed that his luggage is not 14 kilograms heavier, he’s earned himself immense respect for showing consistent Brit grit and can be proud of the mark he has left on the America’s Cup challenge 2021.