For almost two weeks there has been one question that has been doing the rounds more than any other down here in Auckland.
‘Who do you think will win the PRADA Cup?’

With two challengers battling it out in the first to seven win Final to gain the right to take on the Defenders Emirates Team New Zealand, it’s an obvious and simple question. But it’s also one that triggers some of the longest replies as people work through the rationale of their decision in separating two teams that look equally strong.

The last time we saw INEOS TEAM UK and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli go head to head was in Round Robin 4 in a match that saw nine lead changes and the final result being decided on the final cross of the last leg of the race. If this is to be an indication of what is to come we are in for a long and tightly fought series.

But there has been plenty of time and opportunity for things to change since then. Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli were able to refine and develop their performance as they fought their way through the Semi-Final, something that the 4:0 scoreline suggest that they did with ease, although race by race the picture wasn’t so clear.

Meanwhile, INEOS TEAM UK claimed that they would be able to take advantage of more time off the race course to implement bigger changes than would have been possible if they had had the distraction of racing to contend with.

Either way, during the build up to the Final both teams have had their base doors closed for several days at a time with their boats inside suggesting that they were indeed both carrying out modifications that involved more than simply fiddling, fettling and polishing.

As you might expect, when the Team Principals sat side by side on the stage at the opening press conference they gave little away. Instead, deference and mutual respect were in abundant supply, all of which was very sporting, yet provided little indication of what was to come.

But in among some of the finer details, such as the lowering of the upper wind limit of 21knots, (the Final was originally set to be raised to 23knots) and the return of the 15minute one-off delay card that teams can call for once during the series, there were some hints as to what has been going on in each camp. Interestingly, there was little if anything coming from the team that had been so candid during their Christmas crisis.

“We have worked very hard over the period and our team has stuck to the task of trying to get every ounce of performance out of the boat,” said INEOS TEAM UK’ Skipper Sir Ben Ainslie. “It’s been a tough period, especially for the shore team. During the last ten days or so we’ve been back on the water trying to get the intensity up and making sure we are match fit.”

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli’s Team Director Max Sirena appeared more open about what his team had been up to.

“At the beginning of this campaign we were a little bit off the pace in the breeze and maybe because we didn’t find many windy days when we launched boat two,” he said. “When we finished the Round Robin we started to work on the boat in bigger breezes and now we feel pretty confident in the full range of wind conditions. When we raced on Friday in the semi-final it was the windiest day we have sailed and we used that day to develop the way we sail the boat and we were really happy with the performance.

“Since we raced them [INEOS TEAM UK] last time we have new foils, a new modified mast, a new set of sails, a lot of development of the software systems on the boat,” he said. “And then a lot of improvement in the comms, particularly those on board as we made a lot of mistakes when we raced against them last time and we want to try to come out of this with one less mistake than them.”
This appeared to be a big change of attitude from a team that has been notoriously tight lipped about its developments since racing began. But Sirena knew he was giving nothing away to his opponents.

“We have the chase boat of INEOS TEAM UK following us every day, but we are also following them too so there are not many secrets anymore,” said Sirena.
Both freely admit to watching the other to the point that it is worthless denying their own, more obvious developments. So, what have they learned about each other?
“There’s a lot of intense scrutiny of the opposition as you come down to the final,” said Ainslie. “Inevitably you’re going to be observing that team more closely and that’s going to get more intense as we get closer to the races. But it’s part of the game, it’s one of the fascinating things about the Cup. In a technical sport like this, trying to analyse the opposition but also trying to make the best of what you’ve got.”

Sirena agreed and even went one tiny bit further.
“There’s a mix of things you want to see and discover,” he said. “At this stage what you see compliments what you already know they have in their boat but maybe you look more closely at the way that they sail the boat, their techniques and how you can use that when you race them.”

From there the conversation focussed on each team’s appreciation that this would be a tight battle.
“I think it’s going to be a fantastic fight. I fully expect that we’re going to see some amazing racing”, said Ainslie.

While agreeing with his rival, Sirena appeared to take another opportunity to adopt a subtly different strategy by underplaying their position when asked about their prospects.
“For sure we are the underdogs,” he said. “We had to sail in the semi-final to get here, INEOS TEAM UK went straight to the finals.”

Clearly, separating these two on the basis of developments they have made since their last head to head is a challenge in itself. So, could the weather give us a clue?
“For Saturday the outlook is for light to moderate NE breezes which will probably mean course A and a similar situation on Sunday,” explained regatta director Iain Murray. “But the prognosis looking forward to Wednesday is for it to be quite windy and the current forecast is outside sailing conditions.”

So, with performance profiles that sound like they have been smoothed out on both sides and a range of weather conditions over the next few days the prospect of a quick answer to the most popular question in Auckland seems unlikely, leaving the racing to deliver the answers.

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