Ahead of the Emirates Dubai Sail Grand Prix presented by P&O Marinas on December 9-10, SailGP talks to Emirates GBR driver Ben Ainslie about bouncing back from Cadiz, the perilously tight racecourse of Mina Rashid and why the soap opera of boat on boat feuds is good for the sport.
It had been over two years since Emirates GBR had secured an event win. This was despite the team finishing third on the Season 3 Championship podium and retaining its reputation as a top tier team. Newer, less experienced teams began to make their mark – with France picking up multiple event wins in Season 3, before the Spanish stunned spectators to win in Los Angeles earlier this year. Finally, as Season 4’s European leg dawned, the British had their long-awaited breakthrough. Ben Ainslie’s crew dominated Saint-Tropez’s fleet racing and dramatically trounced Australia in the three-boat Final to triumph in France. It marked the team’s first victory since Season 2’s visit to Bermuda in May 2021 – and they didn’t have to wait long for another.
Just two weeks later, a 2-2-3-1-2 fleet racing record earned the British immediate entry into the three-boat showdown at the Italy Sail Grand Prix. When the Final was terminated amid light winds, the team was declared the winner for the second event in a row. Finally, the British were back on top. But then came Cadiz. Emirates GBR’s weekend was defined by a series of lackluster starts and back of the fleet finishes.
Their 8-10-6-7-6 racing record earned them an 8th place finish overall – their worst of the season. Looking back, Ainslie describes the event as ‘probably one of the most frustrating events I’ve ever had in SailGP’. “We came in off the back of a couple of wins feeling like we’ve made some gains, but we just couldn’t get into gear’. The problems were obvious, he says, ‘we just couldn’t get off the start line well and we couldn’t pull ourselves through the fleet’.
Despite this, Ainslie, together with coach Rob Wilson and the wider crew, have already digested the ‘data and video feeds’ from the event, specifically ‘looking at key racing moments and what the opposition was doing better’. The two month gap between Cadiz and upcoming Emirates Dubai Sail Grand Prix has given the team ‘a chance to go away, reflect and come back refreshed,’ he says. While much will depend on the as-yet unknown conditions of Dubai, the ‘long run up’ into the event and ‘four days of decent training’, mean the team will be ‘gunning for the win’ when racing gets underway.
Dubai, he adds, is ‘one of the best spectator venues’ on the circuit, with the deep water of Mina Rashid’s commercial harbour allowing the F50s to race just meters away from shoreside fans. The small racecourse, which is set within the breakwater, will challenge crews with tight maneuvers in close proximity of other boats. Last season, Emirates GBR excelled on this course, and was set to clinch the ultimate win when an error on the last board drop saw the team ‘clutch defeat from the jaws of victory,’ according to Ainslie. This time, Ainslie says, the team are keener than ever to perform, and ‘put on a good show at our home from home event’. Despite working closely with partner Emirates on various activations, there’ll be no let up in the team’s intensity on the racecourse. “We’ve got high expectations of ourselves and, when you’re racing, you want to be out there performing well.”
Season by season, the level of SailGP’s racing has ‘got a lot tighter’ as teams use data analysis off the water to refine on water performance. “A couple of seasons ago, you’d have more of a gap between the top and bottom of the fleet – now it’s very tight,” Ainslie says. As teams push themselves to their limits, the number of boat on boat battles has increased. The rumbling feud between Spain and Canada has become a key Season 4 rivalry, while Cadiz saw an on-water row between Ainslie and New Zealand wing trimmer Blair Tuke after the Brits blocked the Kiwis from the Final.
Ainslie described the exchange as ‘unfortunate’, but remained adamant that he’s ‘never going to apologize for racing’. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from them in the same situation – we were all frustrated and it didn’t take much to wind each other up’. What these incidents do show however is ‘the passion’ of the athletes, Ainslie says.
“No-one can argue that we’re not all out there pushing as hard as we can to get the best result – it just shows what it means to us.” The ability for fans to listen in to on-board comms and follow the ‘soap opera of the dynamics on board’ is a unique to SailGP, he adds. “I can’t think of any other high level sport where you get access to the real time emotions of the athletes – it’s a good thing.”
El Emirates Dubai Sail Grand Prix presentado por P&O Marinas se celebra los días 9 y 10 de diciembre.