AC35 Contenders & Pretenders: Who will win, who won't, and why
THE 35th AMERICA'S CUP begins a week from today, Friday, May 26th, on Bermuda’s Great Sound with the first of two round-robins involving five challengers and, for the first time, the defender. It’ll all be over in 30 days, a record time at least for the modern era that began in 1958 – one month instead of the usual three or four, notwithstanding the two brief DoG Matches in 1988 and 2010. Either the Auld Mug will remain with the Golden Gate Yacht Club (which is, ahem, 3,231 miles from BDA), or be spirited away to Europe or Down Under.
Below is the consensus view of SAILING ILLUSTRATED's editorial team on the outcome. However, it's sport, and as we all know stuff happens. Sir Russell Coutts, head of the America’s Cup Event Authority as well as the CEO of ORACLE TEAM USA, recently said he doesn’t believe there’s a clear-cut favorite. Of course, with his ACEA hat on, he has to say that. You can find actual odds on various Internet betting sites.
After reading the tea leaves, and consulting our AC gurus in the USA and abroad, here's our informed opinion on how it will play out, and why:
THE CHALLENGERS, alphabetically:
Artemis Racing (SWE) – This is the feel-good story of AC35, the comeback from the tragic death of Andrew “Bart” Simpson in the leadup to AC34 on San Francisco Bay. The ostensibly Swedish squad is owned by billionaire oil trader and successful racing sailor Torbjorn Tornqvist (SWE/SUI), and staffed primarily by Aussies, Brits and Kiwis. Artemis are showing the same resolve they did in 2013 when getting back on the water in a symbolic gesture.
Why Artemis could win: They appear to have nailed it with an all-new design team. Artemis have been fast and reliable during recent practice racing, including going undefeated in one round. Team leader-tactician Iain Percy’s stoicism is remarkable, and skipper Nathan Outteridge is quickly gaining the experience he didn't have in 2013.
Why they won’t win: This is where the vagaries of sport kick in. Artemis don't appear to have many weaknesses except straight-line speed against OTUSA in certain conditions. But they've yet to go up against the quick and nimble Kiwis in anger.
Emirates Team New Zealand (NZL) – The scrappy Kiwis are back after a rough few years in which it has been them vs. the world, as the other challengers fell in lockstep with ACEA to change the rules mid-stream, including downsizing the cats from 62' to 50' after ETNZ was well along with their initial design. Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli (ITA) was so infuriated by the change, he pulled his veteran Italian team out of AC35 in April 2015 – after spending more than $5 million.
Why ETNZ could win: They are eager to atone for the soul-crushing collapse in 2013, when they reached match point and then blew an 8-1 lead over OTUSA in the first-to-win nine-race series. Skipper Glenn Ashby (AUS) is a multiple multihull world champion and a strong leader. Coutts feels helmsman Peter Burling is one of the best sailors in the world. Burling and Blair Tuke, an ETNZ crewman, are coming off a gold medal performance in the Rio Olympics. And, once again, the clever Kiwis have come up with an innovation, turning to leg power with their “cyclor” grinders.
Why they won’t win: Hard luck is never far from the Kiwis. Some think their taciturn CEO, Grant Dalton, is snake-bitten and will never win the Cup. They need to show that their pedal-grinding system is an advancement and not a hindrance. Remember the “hula” in 2003?
Groupama Team France (FRA) – The French were a late entry. It’s good to see that skipper Franck Cammas has recovered from nearly having his right foot severed when he fell overboard and was struck by a rudder during training in late 2015.
Why Groupama could win: They won’t.
Why they won’t win: Because they’re French? Hardly, but as good as France is in other yachting endeavors, when it comes to the America's Cup they're always a day late and a Euro short. No offense to America’s first ally, but France’s most memorable AC moment was when the suave and debonaire Baron Marcel Bich took the wheel (white gloves and all) from his under-performing skipper in the 1970 challenger trials off Newport, RI and promptly got lost in the fog. A close second for most memorable was the French team in the 1987 Cup in Western Australia that had the cheekiest name of any AC contender ever – FRENCH KISS. Viva la France, and Louis Vuitton and Moët, too! To say nothing of our dear friends and everyone's favorite Cup supporters Bruno Troublé and Christine Belanger.
Land Rover BAR (GBR) – After 166 years of mostly half-baked efforts, the British are back with a serious campaign – their best in decades if not ever, at least on paper.
Skippered by Sir Ben Ainslie, BAR (for Ben Ainslie Racing) features a cheering section led by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Who doesn’t like seeing the lovely Kate Middleton sashaying around the boatyard in BAR kit? But the Brits haven’t looked good in practice racing and appear to have missed the boat, so to speak, on their foil design.
Why BAR could win: Never count Ainslie out. In 2013 he replaced John Kostecki as OTUSA's tactician and helped lead the team to that amazing come-from-behind victory. Sir Ben is a focused, ruthless competitor who more than once rallied from way down during his Olympic campaigns.
Why they won’t win: Simply put, the Brits have a speed and maneuverability problem. You can have all the fancy buttons and ergonometric design of a Formula 1 steering wheel (the team's CEO is ex-McLaren F1 exec Martin Whitmarsh), but it's all about the foils, mate! Plus, Ainslie keeps running into things, whether it’s his dock or ETNZ’s stern. Maybe that steering wheel is not so great after all.
SoftBank Team Japan (JPN) – Coutts is trying to attract new teams like SBTJ to make the Cup “sustainable.” The syndicate is backed by Japanese software mogul Masayoshi Son, a personal friend of Larry Ellison and a business collaborator (and we're talking billions). Team CEO and skipper is ex-ETNZ driver Dean Barker, a protegé of Coutts from the 2000 Cup. To kick-start their come-lately campaign SBTJ "bought" a design package from OTUSA, and have been their regular training partners. Other teams quietly grumble that it's not kosher. Thus the snide nickname, “Oracle Team Japan.”
Why SBTJ could win: Only if they make a quantum leap in speed and handling, and then only if extreme bad luck hits everyone else. The only team they will beat is the struggling Groupama Team France.
Why they won’t win: While theoretically they have the same design as OTUSA, how would you (or they) really know? And is it the same or an earlier iteration? Even if they started with the same basic package as OTUSA, have they continued to innovate? And what about the all-important foils? Remember the 2013 collaboration between Prada and ETNZ? How well did that go for the Italians, who turned out to be wildly off the pace in their AC72 on SF Bay. Regardless, SBTJ simply don't have the same caliber of sailors as the other teams, including the French.
ORACLE TEAM USA – It’s hard to bet against the two-time defending champions. Eventually, OTUSA and Golden Gate Yacht Club (remember them?) will lose the Cup, just ask the New York Yacht Club. It will happen, probably sooner than the year 2142. For AC newbies that's 2010 + 132 – the year GGYC/OTUSA first won plus the length of NYYC's winning streak from 1851 to 1983. Did you know that Lawrence J. Ellison counts human longevity as one of his many hobbies? If Larry, with his billions of dollars backing hundreds of life-science researchers at the University of Southern California and beyond, finds the proverbial Fountain of Youth, NYYC's seemingly unassailable, longest-in-sports-history winning streak could come under pressure. Not that any of us mere mortals will be around to witness it. Cue the "What's the difference between God and Larry Ellison joke" that you've all heard. (God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison.)
Why OTUSA could win: Jimmy Spithill is the bomb, both on and off the water. Extremely confident, during AC34 while trailing ETNZ he absolutely crushed Dean Barker with mind games at the post-race press conferences, then backed it up on the water. At this point we wouldn't say OTUSA is a heavy favorite, but they're still leading the pack and have the resources, experience and guile to eventually overwhelm the others. I mean, let's face it – Larry, Russell, Jimmy, Grant Simmer, Tom Slingsby, Ian Burns, Paul Bieker, Scott Ferguson, et al.? Not to mention that LJE is one of the world’s richest men, used to getting his way, and spending what it takes to get it. How many people do you know who own a Hawaiian island?
Why they won’t win: At this stage, it's pretty hard to imagine. But it's sport, and if not for one fluky day on San Francisco Bay in September 2013 AC35 would have been contested in Auckland.
Challenger Series – Most pundits are picking Artemis to win the Louis Vuitton, but we're going with ETNZ. This is a game of attrition through weakest links, and the Kiwis appear to us to have stronger links and staying power. They've shed their arguably weakest link from 2013, Dean Barker. Unless the other teams, including OTUSA, gang up on them yet again, whether on the water (collisions) or off (more rule changes), Peter Burling & Co. should get through to the finals, a.k.a. "The Match," against OTUSA. Remember, too, that since the sailing-mad Land of the Long White Cloud challenged for the Cup in 1987, Kiwi teams have gotten to the Match six times out of the last nine – all except their first go in 1987, 1992, and 2010, and you'd have to put an asterisk on the 2010 DoG Match since there was no possibility for them to compete. Other than the Kiwis, what other countries have raced in Match since NYYC lost the Cup in 1983? USA teams six times. SUI three times. AUS and ITA once each. SWE never. Artemis Racing is good enough to make it to the LVC final against ETNZ, and they will, unless somehow, some way, Land Rover BAR get their boat speed act together in the few days remaining. Not likely in our view. As to the LVC winner, it will be the Kiwis unless, again, the other teams pull a collective fast one on them.
The Match – The 2015-16 AC World Series regattas were raced in nearly identical AC45s. At times the OTUSA boys appeared to struggle against the challengers. However, most of those events were light-air farces (or worse), and besides who knew if OTUSA were just trying to keep things close. Anyone remember who won the World Series? Right, Land Rover BAR. And how are Ben's boys looking these days? Right again, not too flash. Recently OTUSA have been capsize-prone. But are they just pushing the boat harder than everyone else? Practicing capsize recovery? Or trying to make the news at 11 and promote "their" regatta? And what if Jimmy falls off the boat again and this time, God forbid, gets hurt? Possible, of course, but not likely. The much better assumption is that OTUSA will have sized up the challengers during the LVC finals, and be prepared to take on the eventual winner with every weapon in their arsenal: a rested and ready all-star albeit not all-American crew, the best light- and heavy-air foils, equally good or better weather forecasting so as to make the right foil decision each day, and the resources and ability to keep improving every aspect of the boat, and team, as the regatta progresses – same as AC34. We're picking OTUSA to beat the Kiwis 7-4 in the best-of-thirteen-race series (actually, first to 7 points but we'll save that for a post closer to the Match).
Regardless, and sorry to repeat, it's sport and stuff happens. That's why we'll be watching. As objectionable and unrelatable as much of AC35 is to the broader yacht racing public, we're still holding out hope for a fascinating and entertaining event.
Your thoughts? Join the debate in the AC section of our forum here.