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A day that began with Ineos Team UK having to modify their boat Britannia following a protest from rivals ended with Britain’s America’s Cup challengers on top once again.
Sir Ben Ainslie’s team followed up their stunning start to the Prada Cup on Friday - when they won their opening two races just weeks after being hammered in a warm-up regatta - by winning their only race of the day against American Magic. What is more, they did so in the sort of light, shifty conditions in which they struggled so badly pre-Christmas.
Both Ainslie and tactician Giles Scott cautioned afterwards not to read too much into this win, with the conditions on day two so capricious that American skipper Terry Hutchinson was moved to call the racing a “lottery”. Luna Rossa helmsman Franco Bruni, meanwhile, described the race course as a “minefield”.
Nevertheless, it was difficult to escape the impression that Britannia’s comeback is real and that they can now be optimistic about challenging across the wind range.
The day had actually begun with Ineos on the back foot, an overnight protest from rivals Luna Rossa regarding the outhaul on their mainsail taking some of the shine off their brilliant opening day.
— INEOS TEAM UK (@INEOSTEAMUK) January 16, 2021
The outhaul system helps to shape the bottom part of the massive double-skinned soft wingsail on these AC75s and the Italians believed by running a rope through the sail the British team had broken Class rules.
The jury was inclined to agree, fining the British team US$5000 [£3680] although their two race wins from Friday were safe since the system had passed the pre-race measuring process.
As grinder Freddie Carr noted, such protests are "part and parcel" of the America's Cup. This was not the first of this Cup and will certainly not be the last. But it was inconvenient, meaning Ineos's shore team had to work overnight to find an alternative solution. They clearly managed to do so.
After Luna Rossa beat American Magic in the first race of the day - American boat Patriot failing to complete the course within the time limit as the wind in the Hauraki Gulf dropped as low as three knots - it was Ineos’s turn to face the Americans.
With the wind moving about, the start was delayed so that the race committee could realign the course axis. But once it got going Ineos Team UK made a better fist of it than their rivals. American Magic fell off their foils in the pre-start as they entered the start box too early, incurring a penalty in the process. As they floundered, Britannia streaked away up the first beat. By the top mark, however, they too were becalmed.
These AC75s are designed to sail in seven knots and over, but with the wind moving about so much, dying completely before filling in again, it became a case of trying to jump from one area of pressure to the next, the boats sometimes even heading away from the next mark to find it. When the boats’ sails were full, they could be flying at 30knots or more. By contrast, when they fell off their foils they could be crawling along at 3knots in displacement mode, sailing like an everyday race boat.
Ainslie and Scott read the shifts better, with Britannia noticeably quicker at getting up on its foils when they did find some wind. By the final leg, it had become a race against the clock, with just seven minutes remaining until the 45-minute time limit elapsed.
At one point, in a desperate attempt to find some breeze, Ineos Team UK headed all the way out to the boundary edge of the course and gybed just metres from some spectator boats at close to 40mph. “They would have got a pretty good view of us,” noted Scott who admitted there had been concern on the British boat that they would not make the time cut.
In the end they did so with two minutes to spare, American Magic following five minutes later.
“The frustrating thing was we could see the wind was holding up three quarters of the way down that last leg," Scott added. "We just had to punch through the light patch."
Ainslie looked delighted at the finish, as well he might. A few weeks ago, Ineos Team UK looked in danger of making an embarrassing exit in this Prada Cup.
Now they are looking forward with renewed confidence, leading the round robin series with 3pts to Luna Rossa’s 1pt and American Magic’s 0pts. Ineos have one more race on Sunday, against Luna Rossa, in what are forecast to be stronger breezes, before the teams get four days off to work on their boats and prepare for the next stage.
“I’m not sure today was a really accurate read of light air performance, to be honest, because it was so puffy, so shifty,” Ainslie said. “In the more even light airs against the other teams, we’re still not sure where we are. But certainly it’s a huge improvement from where we were three weeks ago.”
Scott agreed, although he demurred slightly when Hutchinson mentioned the word ‘lottery'. “Was it a lottery? It’s yacht racing. There’s always an element of chance,” he said. “Today was really all about just staying in that wind. Every team was going to fall off the foil at some point today. But to win you had to have a package underneath you that was capable of taking off well. For sure we’ve made gains in the light airs.
“We’re two days into this competition and we have three weeks ahead of us. Of course, if you’d told us we would be where we are [after day two], we’d have taken a chunk out of someone’s arm. But we understand there’s an awfully long way to go.”