Getting a nose ahead is a huge deal, but so too is any sense that your boat might be slower.
Such is the pressure on teams that confidence can crumble as quickly as it can be boosted. Any Cup sailor who’s been there will confirm how different the opening race feels compared to the hundreds, if not thousands of hours that they have spent in testing and training. Doing it for real fells very different and can often deliver surprising results in the heat of the moment. And as the current Defenders know only too well from their experience in 2003 in Auckland, the opening seconds can reveal shortcomings that were previously invisible.
Whatever the early signs, years of development, hundreds of thousands of hours, along with a considerable financial investment are at stake from the second both boats cross the line. And for the 36th America’s Cup the anticipation has reached yet another level.
The AC75s are the most extreme boats in modern Cup history and have already delivered breathtaking speeds and a level of close racing that was considered incompatible with such high speeds before the start of racing back in December. But now we know otherwise. The boats are blisteringly quick and combined with a rapid rise in confidence among the crews, the bar has been raised beyond anybody’s expectations.
And now the battle is about to start for real.
Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli has completed sixteen live races since the beginning of the America’s Cup World Series began in December. Emirates Team New Zealand has completed just six. When compared to previous Cup cycles the totals are tiny yet even so, the difference between the two could prove to be significant.
The Italian challengers will arrive at the start line match fit having fought their way through to the Cup the hard way. But in doing so they have improved steadily along the way, refining not only their machine, but the way in which their team communications work. And it is this that could prove to be the most valuable. In racing live opponents as opposed to their chase boat or simulator, the Italians have had to respond to the uncertainties of another team’s moves. Their ability to respond to a variety of situations could well prove to be an advantage. But they know little about their opponent’s real performance on the water.
With just six sets of live race data, (that refer back to last year and likely to be out of date), Emirates Team New Zealand have been able to keep the hard performance numbers that define their capabilities to themselves.
In contrast, the defenders have been able to tap into far more recent and thorough racing data on Luna Rossa as the Italians were putting their foot to the floor to win the Prada Cup final.
So, while both teams know a great deal about each other there are big areas on both sides that are unknown.
“It’s as much a mystery to us as it is anyone else,” said Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling at the pre-Cup press conference. “And when we look ahead there’s a pretty dynamic period for weather ahead. We’ve learned a lot watching the Challenger Series unfold and are as ready as we can be.”
Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli skipper Max Sirena was equally candid.
“We have had to judge performance just by watching, we have no data,” he said. “But I feel a lot more confident this time than all the other times we have raced them. As I said to the team, we’ve got nothing to lose, we can only win.”
So, as each boat crosses the line for the first start of the first race, those are the thoughts that will need to remain in their minds as the most revealing seconds the 36th America’s Cup unfold.