Exclusive interview, Ben Ainslie meets Toto Wolff: ‘They say America’s Cup is like F1 on the water — they’re right’

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Tom Cary
·7 min read
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Sir Ben Ainslie and Toto Wolff — Exclusive interview, Sir Ainslie meets Toto Wolff: ‘They say America’s Cup is like F1 on the water — they’re right’ - GETTY IMAGES
Sir Ben Ainslie and Toto Wolff — Exclusive interview, Sir Ainslie meets Toto Wolff: ‘They say America’s Cup is like F1 on the water — they’re right’ - GETTY IMAGES

One of them has won four Olympic dinghy titles and an America’s Cup. The other has just led his Formula One team to an unprecedented seventh straight drivers’ and constructors’ world championship double. Together, they are hoping to end 170 years of hurt where British America’s Cup challenges are concerned.

Sir Ben Ainslie, team principal and helm of Ineos Team UK, and Toto Wolff, team principal of Mercedes F1, are two of the biggest beasts in British sport. But right now both are looking a little ragged.

Time differences on our Microsoft Teams call mean it is the crack of dawn for one, and late in the evening for the other – and both have plenty of work to do. “It’s full on at the moment,” admits Ainslie. “Fast and furious. We have some catching up to do.” “I like that,” replies Wolff. “‘Fast and furious’ is a good description of our respective sports and people.”

Ainslie is not understating things. British fans watching the America’s Cup World Series regatta in Auckland just before Christmas would have experienced a familiar sinking feeling. For three days, Ainslie’s team wobbled in the light airs, repeatedly falling off their foils – the arms sticking out of the sides of this new generation of Cup boat, which when lowered into the water provide the lift to help the boat to “fly” – and struggling to get up again. All told, Ineos Team UK lost six races on the spin, as well as a lot of face in what is a £110 million campaign.

Ineos Team UK - Ineos Team UK
Ineos Team UK - Ineos Team UK

If the whispers emanating from New Zealand are to be believed, however, they appear to have made big gains in the intervening weeks. Quite how big we will find out shortly. The Prada Cup challenger series, a round-robin format between the British, Italian and American challengers, begins on Friday and will determine who goes through to face defenders Emirates New Zealand in the Cup match in March. But Ainslie is in no doubt of the potential long-term impact of his team’s tie-up with Mercedes F1.

“It is game-changing,” he insists. “Whether or not it will mean us winning the Cup this time around, I can’t tell you right now. I hope it does. But either way, I hope that we can continue working together, because it has the capability to take us to the next level.”

Wolff agrees. While the Austrian, by his own admission, is not a sailor (“My experience is limited to Lasers and Hobie Cats and every time I was in those boats they seemed to capsize”), he says the description of this new generation of America’s Cup boats as being like F1 on water is “more than just words”.

“The similarities are huge,” he says. “Obviously you have the ­aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, the modelling, the simulation and those sorts of things. But from my side, I am fascinated also by the learnings in terms of man-management, performance under pressure, adaptability. America’s Cup is a team sport. It’s a technical team sport. And so there’s a lot of overlap.”

F1 expertise was something ­Ainslie had been chasing for a long time. Ainslie and Wolff were put in touch by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the co-owner of Ineos, the petrochemicals company bankrolling Ineos Team UK and which now has a 33 per cent stake in Mercedes F1, a couple of years ago. But Ainslie had long sought a tie-up with motorsport’s premier series. He spoke with Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s chief designer, in the build-up to the last Cup in Bermuda. “What is this I’m hearing, Ben? You spoke to the enemy?” Wolff jokes when the relationship is brought up. “I can’t believe this …”

Ainslie is clear that this relationship is different, however. “A genuine partnership”. Around 30 engineers from Mercedes’ Applied Science division have worked on everything from a more efficient gearbox on the boat’s grinding pedestals, to improving computational efficiency and run-time of simulations, to manufacturing manifolds, to testing parts on the rig. Two of Mercedes' engineers are based out in Auckland with the team now.

Mercedes even brought the entire build project on Ineos Team UK’s wing foils – potentially the key design area in this 36th Cup – ­in-house in Brackley.

“With everything we were up against, we probably wouldn’t have made it, frankly, if we hadn’t had their expertise and manufacturing capacity,” Ainslie admits. "It's so complex." Whether the partnership will pay off remains to be seen. There is speculation that, while everyone has focused on the foils, it is in the new double-skin mainsail, and how you manipulate that, where favourites New Zealand have stolen a march on the rest of fleet (intriguingly, recent shots of Britannia, Ineos Team UK’s boat, appear to show a different rig ­altogether).

Wolff, though, says he has no doubt Ainslie has what it takes to turn things around, noting striking similarities with his star driver Lewis Hamilton.

“I don’t even know how to describe it, but I’ve got to know Lewis very, very closely and Ben we’ve only seen each other on a few occasions,” he says, “but you can spot that steely look straight away. There is no half-commitment. Two men on a mission.”

Wolff stresses that whatever happens over the coming weeks, this should be a long-term project. With Ratcliffe now having effectively bought Team Sky, OGC Nice, an America’s Cup challenger, and having bought a stake in the most successful Formula One team on the grid, the opportunities to “cross-pollinate” and share expertise within the Ineos sports family are endless.

“That is the master plan and the vision that Jim had,” Wolff says. “We see already learnings not only between sailing and Formula One racing, but with cycling as well. Dave Brailsford is a really good sparring partner of mine. We went on a fishing trip to Iceland and ended up lying in the wet grass with our fishing gear and discussing the personalities of the top athletes. And whenever it was our turn to go fishing we would rather stay in the wet grass and discuss our approach to high-performance individuals.

“So we started to cross-nurture each other. I believe in a few years this could be a really powerful group of sports teams.” At the moment the pressure, clearly, is on Ainslie. The four-time Olympic champion says he “takes his hat off to Toto”, ­noting that managing a team of just over 100 people “does not compare with a Formula One team of 2,000-odd”.

But Wolff pays him a compliment back, noting that Ainslie is in effect performing both his and Hamilton’s roles in driving the boat and the team.

Screengrab
Screengrab

“It took us [Mercedes F1] a while to become the team we are today,” Wolff adds. “We were four years into the sport before we started to see some of the big trophies in our hands. And I think this project needs time.

“In sports, resource can do a lot – financial resource but more importantly the right people. But what you can’t buy, or accelerate in sports, is time.

“This is why in Formula One you see larger organisations – Toyota, BMW, Honda – dropping out because they don’t have the understanding that you simply can’t ­accelerate the learning curve. And this is why I’m really proud of the Daimler top management is that they just took [Mercedes' initial struggles] on the chin, this bad news, knowing that it would eventually turn around. And the same applies, I guess, to the America’s Cup. You just need to keep treading water. ” Ainslie nods. “You need continuity,” he says.

“Yes,” replies Wolff. “And punches on the chin. Because that is going to make you much, much stronger. If you’re given the time to learn and the time to improve, ­eventually good people with good resources are going to stay on top for a long time.”