Thursday, 31 May 2007

Any Given (Fri)Day

It would be churlish not to join in the punditry for the Louis Vuitton Final...

But let me tell you right now - I think it’s too close to call. That’s not to say that either Luna Rossa or Emirates Team New Zealand won’t go down 5-1 or 5-2, because a tiny edge in this game can be converted into a sweep, but at this point in time I think you’d be foolish to try and predict which team. As ETNZ tactician, Terry Hutchinson said repeatedly at Thursday morning’s opening press conference - it will come down to who does the most things right and the least things wrong on any given day…

Now, I’ve got to admit that to prepare for this blog, I haven’t watched every start that Barker and Spithill have done since they were kids – which is what ETNZ's head man, Grant Dalton told Murray Deaker’s New Zealand radio audience that Ben Ainslie had been up to for a report on Jimmy Spithill. I think you can safely assume that Philippe Presti and Charlie McKee at Luna Rossa have put together something very similar on Dean Barker. This is Presti, ‘As the training helmsman I have to put myself in Dean Barker’s skin. We did the same for Dickson and it worked really well.’

Unfortunately, you’re going to have to make do with the conclusions that I can draw from the last two round robin races.

In Round Robin 1, ETNZ had the tricky port entry in light air, and took a penalty in a long dial-up. But a penalty right or wrong is not the point here, so much as ETNZ appear a little less consistent in the pre-start than Luna Rossa. It’s very rare that you see the Italians in big trouble in the pre-start box – whereas you do see ETNZ convert a small disadvantage into a big one, by trying too hard to get the upper hand back.

This is something that the Kiwis need to watch, and a whole bunch of people from ETNZ have been telling us so – starting with helmsman, Dean Barker, ‘I know I still have to improve my pre-starts. I have had some really good ones but also others were more average, and we are going to work on being more consistent.’ Dalton said something similar to Murray Deaker, and Terry Hutchinson reinforced it again in Thursday morning’s ACM press conference when he said that they had been out practicing pre-starts - while Luna Rossa seemed to be focused on tacking and gybing…

But I digress… the next pressure point is the weather call – which side of the line and the first beat do you want? Both teams appeared to have an excellent record in the semis (you can never be sure as we don’t hear the call). Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham is leading the way at Emirates TNZ, and Hamish Wilcox is his opposite number at Luna Rossa - but nobody’s perfect, as this first round robin race demonstrated, so to continue that tale…

ETNZ did well to escape out of that long dial-up, albeit with one penalty (remember what happened to Oracle in the semi-final with a light air, port entry against Luna Rossa). And Luna Rossa appeared happy to let ETNZ take the left-hand side of the start line, but the Kiwis did a better job of the final approach to get a good start tight to leeward. From there, they forced Luna Rossa to tack away. The early gains were to the left, and ETNZ managed to win the first cross. Luna Rossa picked a side and got it, but executed the actual start poorly and lost the advantage when it turned out to be the wrong choice. And these were all things they did brilliantly in the semi-final against Oracle.

But what happened next? ETNZ had the pick of the sides for the rest of the beat, took the right hand side and a massive split opened. Then Terry Hutchinson had to watch Luna Rossa come back and take the lead at the first mark, after some great close quarters work on the final approach by Jimmy Spithill. It was a lead that Luna Rossa only relinquished on the final run, after another big-ish split, with Luna Rossa still winning after ETNZ completed the penalty. And this is famously, keep-it-tight-Terry, remember. Beware of pundits making generalisations...

All right, maybe the penalty meant he had to look for the big gain. But how did ETNZ beat Oracle to top the leader-board for the round robins? It was a massive split on the first beat of the last race. Both Terry Hutchinson and his Luna Rossa opposite number, Torben Grael, are prepared to sail the race as they see it. And I’m still backing my previous theory that a willingness to take a split indicates that they think they’re sailing an even or better team, rather than one they’ve got an edge over. I point to how tight Luna Rossa kept it with Oracle after they went 3-1 up and rest my case…

In Round Robin 2, the entry sides were swopped, but there was a bit more breeze, so things were easier for Luna Rossa and we ended up with a similar final approach to the line. Luna Rossa again had the right hand side, although on this occasion it was clearer that ETNZ wanted the left. The Kiwis got tight to leeward, and the Italians had to tack away immediately giving ETNZ a lead of half a length or so.

From there it appeared that things swung back to the Italians on the right, and when Luna Rossa tacked to starboard to force the first cross, the boats were almost bow to bow. But ETNZ had a tiny edge and managed to tack leebow, forcing the Italians away. That’s how it proceeded up that beat over more than thirty tacks, with ETNZ slowly extending to a 17 second lead by the first mark, and then pulling out to a 36s win by the finish. It all happened in that tacking duel on the first beat – perhaps that’s why Terry Hutchinson thinks the Italians are out there practicing their maneuvers. It’s the sum of all the tiny things executed well, that will make the difference on any given day.

What else can I tell you? Grant Dalton said in his NZ radio interview, and Hutchinson confirmed it on Thursday morning, that they will be using NZL 92, and the boat hasn’t been changed. Andy Horton of Luna Rossa confirmed that they would be using ITA 94, but not that there hadn’t been any changes – Dalton believes the Italians have been tweaking wing angles at least.

Speed differences are the hardest thing to call from the outside, as you can’t be sure about differences in the breeze on the boats. But if there’s a consensus it’s that NZL 92 is the better boat in under… say 12 knots, and ITA 94 quicker over that break point. Luna Rossa looked moded for upwind in the semi-finals, but if Dalts is right about the wing angles, that could now have changed. Personally, I think the differences will be tiny across the range, and it will come down to how well the teams convert, when and if they have an edge. Just like basketball, you have to score on every possession…

Dalton certainly gave the impression that they believed this was going to come down to the people, not the boats – resilience to the pressure was the key. So who’s really up for this? Both teams have come back from some real bad days – ETNZ’s first round loss to Mascalzone, and Luna Rossa’s double loss to Shosholoza and Oracle in the same round – so I don’t think we’ll see anyone folding and packing any mental tents. This one will be fought to the end.

Over the past four years, ETNZ have the psychological advantage, they’ve been top challenger dog for a long time. And while that ought to give them an edge, it also gives them more to lose. While Luna Rossa are the boat on a charge, with a big rush of form and confidence just when it matters. Then again, so far, the Kiwis have always found the little extra when they needed it to get their noses in front… you see the problem.

In the wrap-up interview at the end of the semi’s, Hutchinson joked, ‘I haven't slept in about six weeks.’ The Emirates TNZ website says that they’ve had three days off since then. But remember that the Italians have had three more days to prepare, and Luna Rossa up-the-rig-man, Andy Horton, told the Thursday press conference that they’ve taken four or five days off. This is certainly a lesson learned – if I remember rightly, after winning an exhausting Louis Vuitton final against Paul Cayard and co. in 2000, Prada (as they were then) worked straight through to the America’s Cup itself, and got hammered 5-0.

And finally... The stats say that these teams are 2-2 in the last four races, with the yellow or starboard entry boat always winning. At today’s press conference, Andy Horton won the coin toss for Luna Rossa and chose the yellow end.

And really finally... you might have heard that ETNZ sailed Alinghi on Wednesday. Terry Hutchinson told the press conference that NZL 92 had a maintenance day and they wanted to race - so they were using NZL 84. And as we have no idea which boat or kit Alinghi were using, I wouldn’t read too much into Alinghi's reported speed advantage, although it is a depressingly familiar tune. Dalton told NZ radio that they reckon they got the better of the starts, and perhaps that's just the fillip the Kiwis needed…

Tomorrow, the talk stops when the flag drops, and we'll find out.

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

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www.markchisnell.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

And Then There Were Two

The Louis Vuitton semi-final ended on a very different sort of day

It started off cloudy, cooler, blowing 18-20+ knots at the masthead, with a big lumpy sea. It was much more like an early summer day in the Hauraki Gulf than the Mediterranean, and the New Zealanders looked a lot more comfortable out in it. They finally crushed the spirited Spanish resistance, controlling the pre-start, shutting-out Desafio Espanol at the committee boat and extending on every leg to win by 1 minute 18 seconds. And so Emirates Team New Zealand goes through 5-2, to meet Luna Rossa in the Louis Vuitton Final on 1st June.

ETNZ had the committee boat entry, and Barker elected to dispense with the dial-up. He scooted behind Desafio and then headed deep into the pre-start box, eventually leading into a circle. Jablonski slammed it into a tighter turn and prevented the Kiwis from tacking to port, and we effectively had our dial-up, but way down in the box with three minutes to go. And with Desafio on the right, it looked like ETNZ had given up the advantage. But Jablonski had got himself too close, and as he became windward boat, the pressure came on. Desafio bailed out to the right, onto port tack first, but it was Barker and his trimmers that got the boat moving faster with a big jib backwind. Jablonski found himself with Barker on his tail and the Kiwi boat in control.

Barker was able to prevent Desafio from either tacking or gybing with some great boat-handling in tough conditions, and it may well be that Jablonski was struggling for control of his steed. The on-board audio picked up Desafio tactician John Cutler admitting defeat, and telling Jablonski to minimize the loss. And so the pair slowly eased their way out past the starboard tack layline for the committee boat, and Desafio eased out of the competition. ETNZ finally tacked when they were both late, leading Desafio to the line and starting a couple of lengths in front.

In scenes reminiscent of the first America’s Cup race in Auckland in 2003, the buckets came out to clear the scuppers of water on the first beat – but this time it was not on the Kiwi boat. The Spanish eventually got it settled, and the breeze eased down, but by then the lead was insurmountable and ETNZ just had to keep the rig in the boat to win it.

It should be added that John Cutler’s been the only afterguard member prepared to wear the microphone through this regatta, and the coverage will be a lot poorer for his absence – it makes a massive difference to the commentators when they’ve got the thinking of the afterguards to chew over, rather than just the visual of two boats sailing... Paint, and drying spring to mind.

But in the end, a great semi-final series ends with everyone happy. The Spanish achieved their goal - more than their goal - in reaching the semis and taking a couple of races from ETNZ. The Kiwis took three more days and one more race than the Italians, but now they too march onwards towards their goal – taking the Cup back to Auckland. Ahead lie Luna Rossa, and one hell of a final…

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

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Mark Chisnell ©

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Man on Fire

Luna Rossa go through to the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup...

Day 6 of the Louis Vuitton semi-final opened with Luna Rossa and ETNZ needing just one more win to go through to the final - that fact alone would have surprised plenty of people 7 days ago. Then chuck in the real humdinger – by the end of Race 6, Luna Rossa were on their merry way, having dispatched Oracle 5 -1 with a 33 second fifth race win. And it was ETNZ having to come back Tuesday - like naughty schoolboys for extra work - to try again to put Desafio down, after the Spanish frustrated ETNZ with a 15 second win.

For Oracle, it may have been a different helmsman, as Sten Mohr replaced Chris Dickson, but it was the same result. Luna Rossa wanted the left-hand side of the first beat, and once again that was what they got off the line. Jimmy Spithill chased Sten Mohr for as long as he could, to make his life difficult, then peeled away to start at full speed on the pin on starboard, while Oracle had to luff around the committee boat to start on port. Inevitably, Luna Rossa tacked to cover and the pair of them headed upwind. It was soon clear why Luna Rossa wanted the left – stronger breeze or shift on that side lifted Luna Rossa’s bow higher than Oracle’s, and the Italians sailed out to a four length lead. And that really was the end of the contest. Torben Grael kept it pretty tight all the way round, and Oracle looked beaten.

The race was a microcosm of the whole series – the right weather call for the beat, followed by perfect execution of the strategy in the pre-start, allowing Luna Rossa to take control at the first cross. From there they only looked back once. It could so nearly have been 5-0. Oracle just weren’t good enough in the pre-start box, or in calling the first shift, and it killed them.

So I’m sure there will be a lot of talk about Chris Dickson stepping off the Oracle boat – was he pushed or did he jump - but in a sense, it’s already history. A more interesting question is - where does the team go from here? Will Larry stay with it, after a second disappointment? It might be worth it - Prada had a great first challenge, followed it up with a no-expense-spared and disappointing second, but came back wiser and stronger for their third effort... and look at them now. But we’ll have to wait and see as the dust settles.

Perhaps it might be the last time one of the big teams tries to combine the roles of CEO, helmsman and skipper. In the modern era many successful campaigns have been run with a sailor as main man - but not with a sailing role that demands too much of them. For instance, Peter Blake in the 1995 and 2000 version of Team New Zealand, and both Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand in this Cup.

Francesco de Angelis started the new model Luna Rossa by trying to run the team and sail as helmsman, but seems to have quickly recognized the limitations it placed on his ability to do both jobs. He got Philippe Presti in to steer the B boat, and now sails in the afterguard as skipper, while tending the backstay tension which is critical to trim and speed. So he’s sailing right through the campaign, in daily contact with the business end of the team, testing and training - which is essential - but not in such a pivotal role that he can’t miss a day or three to keep the machinery oiled elsewhere. Similarly for Grant Dalton at ETNZ, sailing onboard the race boat as floater, and running the campaign.

But ETNZ aren’t having things all their own way, and I suspect that sentiment will be shifting to Luna Rossa as favourites for the final. Barker and co made heavy weather of executing what may or may not have been the same game plan as Luna Rossa - or maybe Desafio offered greater resistance. With 26 seconds to go to the start gun, ETNZ were jammed to leeward of the Spanish about two thirds of the way up the line from the pin, having also looked like they wanted the left. Desafio had to tack for the boat, and I thought we were going to get another split tack start, with ETNZ bearing away to accelerate and start at the pin.

But no, gentle reader… instead, Barker tacked with Desafio, and found himself wallowing in bad air and waves, while the Spanish accelerated away. Both boats started on port with Desafio tucked up under ETNZ’s leebow, the Spanish going faster and with a half length lead. ETNZ tacked away for clear air and the pair held opposite tacks for a separation of 800m before ETNZ finally tacked to go with them. The Spanish picked their moment to come across on starboard and were a length or so in front and able to control the beat from there. A chunk of that advantage at the first cross will have come from the half length the Spanish had off the line, and the extra tack done by ETNZ – it’s a tight game out there.

A twisted Spanish spinnaker on the last gybe on the first run nearly let the Kiwis back into it, but not quite. And then ETNZ’s own first gybe on the final run let them down when they might have had a chance to roll Desafio. It gave John Cutler and co. just enough breathing room to sail deep for the finish, and showing no speed disadvantage in that mode the Spanish brought it home in front – and the celebrating was a lot wilder than on Luna Rossa, who had just won their semi 5-1…

So the Spanish live to fight another day, taking it to seven races, while Oracle are beaten in six. John Cutler will be pretty happy about that. He was with Oracle in Auckland, and got bumped off tactics when Dickson came back onto the boat during the Round Robins. He subsequently left the team, and now he’s got this young Spanish outfit further up the game than the mighty two-time challenger with the biggest budget. Revenge, I suspect, is sweet, and a dish best served cold. So too, for the OneWorld Challenge guys aboard Luna Rossa – not least Jimmy Spithill, who evened the score card after Oracle dumped OWC out of the competition in 2003. Spithill is a man on fire, Luna Rossa hitting a new level of performance at just the right moment.

I can’t wait to see the final.

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

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www.markchisnell.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Saturday, 19 May 2007

SOCK… KER-POW… KERRRUNCH…

Battered and dazed, Oracle hit the canvas, but is it for the final count?

It was the most extraordinary pre-start we’ve yet seen in this Louis Vuitton. Oracle took two penalties, getting a red flag with the second – which meant it had to be done immediately. They started a hundred metres behind, with the second penalty still to unwind. The boys in white wriggled and worked, but Luna Rossa never looked like they were going to let them get back into it. The finish delta was 1m 57s, and the Italian boat is now within a single win of the Louis Vuitton Final.

In the other match, Jablonski and Desafio pushed Emirates TNZ up towards the committee boat and the Kiwis had to start with a downspeed tack – but it made no difference. ETNZ wanted the right for good reason - it had the better breeze and they were soon back into a controlling position. At the first cross, Desafio were a length behind. There’s been no coming back from there against the Kiwis, but the final delta tells a desperate story for Spain – 1m 49s.

So, that incredible start… The ironic thing is that it was the port tack entry that cost Oracle so dear. The port tack boat is always disadvantaged, particularly in light air when the boats can hold so long in the dial-up. Oracle have worked really hard on super-fast, right-on-the-pin entries that have often succeeded in overturning this disadvantage by allowing them to cross ahead of the boat entering on starboard – avoiding the dial-up and getting control of the right-hand side of the pre-start box - click here for more on this one.

But you need a little shift, or the other boat to be a little late, to get away with it… and today, Oracle got nada. They had to spin up into the wind to avoid Luna Rossa on starboard, and we had a dial-up. Now, as the clock ticks down, the pressure comes on to the left-hand boat, Oracle, to make a move. Otherwise, they both sit there until they’re out of time, the right-hand boat can turn onto port and accelerate first, and will just sail into the lead. So Dickson made his move, he fell onto starboard and sheeted in. But Jimmy Spithill and Luna Rossa matched the acceleration, and Dickson was instantly in trouble. He’s got Luna Rossa’s bow to leeward, he’s windward boat, he has to keep clear and he’s going over the line…

Dickson did what Dean Barker did in race 3 (in a similar situation at the committee boat end). Oracle tried to sail over Luna Rossa’s bow and gybe round in front of them to get back behind the line. It had the same result – penalty to Oracle. It was what happened next that made it different. Luna Rossa were locked in with Oracle, forced to gybe with them to avoid the collision, and both boats ended up on port tack, parallel to each other, with Dickson maybe ten feet to leeward. Luna Rossa are stuck there through no fault of their own, there’s no avoiding action they can take, and so when Dickson bore away and shoved his stern into Luna Rossa near the shrouds, the umpires had no choice – second penalty and a red flag for Oracle.

While there was no real way back into it for Oracle, they didn’t do themselves any favours at the leeward gate. They made an incredibly late call to switch from the right-hand buoy to the left, sailing almost the entire width of the gate in extra distance. It turned a 125m deficit on the gain line just prior to the gate (about five lengths or maybe 30s) into a 48s split by the time they had rounded the mark. Oracle seem to have a real dislike of following the leader round the same gate mark. Yesterday they got a massive split out of it which might have got them back into the race. Perhaps they were looking for the same today, the silver bullet they so desperately needed. But this time Luna Rossa tacked onto starboard with them and shut down the leverage almost immediately. The Italians continued to extend from there, and by the time Oracle had completed the second penalty turn just before the finish, it was a massive delta.

I doubt you’ll find too many people around the Port America’s Cup who think there’s a way back for Oracle from here. Their world has turned on its head so quickly. Six days ago they were still the pundit’s favourites. There were a couple of little blips – the headfoil failure against China Team, and then the loss against ETNZ in the final race of the Round Robin. But to most people these things seemed anomalies, and the buzz coming out of the team seemed to indicate that they agreed. Now, in an incredibly short space of time – compared to the years these guys have been working at it – they find themselves 4-1 down and fighting for their lives. Getting their heads round that must be the hardest part.

And if 3-1 to the bad is too early to change a team around – given that it very rarely works and you’re only a couple of races down - then 4-1 is too late. Luna Rossa have an unstoppable momentum. And the same can be said for the Kiwis – it will take something extraordinary from Oracle or Desafio to pull it back, or just to keep it going past tomorrow. But this is yacht racing, and extraordinary things are built into the game…

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

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Mark Chisnell ©

Friday, 18 May 2007

Painfully Plain Sailing?

Luna Rossa and ETNZ go 3-1 up in the Louis Vuitton Semi-finals…

For the fourth time in the four races sailed in this semi-final, Luna Rossa led BMW Oracle around every mark. And this time there were no errors on the final run to let the Americans back into it. The split at the finish was just 23 seconds – despite the fact that at one point the boats had been almost three kilometers apart – but that matters little. What matters is that Oracle now have to win four races out of five. It’s starting to look like painfully plain sailing for the Italians – and the Kiwis. Dean Barker recovered his pre-start form to lead Emirates TNZ to their third, forty-something second win – 42 in this case, which is, of course, the answer to life, the universe and everything.

If there’s one team out there that should have the answers to the big questions and don’t, it’s Oracle. The story was familiar - another wrong first-shift call. Peter Isler said as much in the post-race interview - they wanted the right-hand side on the start line. That’s how it looked, and Jimmy Spithill and Luna Rossa seemed happy to let them have it. There wasn’t much aggression in this start, a sign that both teams are happy with what they’ve got. Luna Rossa didn’t even seem that bothered about getting tight to leeward of Oracle to force the early tack. And that’s a sign of a team confident in their boat and their weather call.

And that’s how it played out. Oracle held their windward position for a while, then either a little left-hand shift came in, or Luna Rossa found the extra gear. Either way, the Italians popped forward a couple of critical metres, and Oracle had to tack away before they started hemorrhaging on the gain line. When Luna Rossa had tacked with them and got going, the Italian’s lead was close to a boat length.

Oracle realized they were on the back foot, headed for punishment on the layline, and started the tacking duel. But Luna Rossa had a comfortable leebow at the first cross and then just eased further ahead. Oracle did find a right-hand shift to bring them back into it as they tacked to starboard for the top mark. It seemed that Luna Rossa realized they were making losses as they came into the cross on port, or that Oracle were already over the layline. Luna Rossa tacked short, still ahead and to leeward, and then found the extra gear again and slowly worked up to hurt Oracle. It put the American’s another crucial boat-length back, and gave Luna Rossa room to breathe on the run.

Twice when it counted on that first beat, Luna Rossa found a little bit extra to turn a slight edge into a boat-length or two and take control. And then there was that broken Oracle flipper – the arm on the top spreader that pushes the top leech of the genoa open. It might have been a mechanical failure, or the sail might have hooked it up in a tack and ripped it off – there were plenty of tacks. It won’t have made much difference to the upwind speed, and the crew pulled the bits off the rig before they could do any more damage - but it just felt like another part of the fabric fraying…

We’d seen this first beat movie three times already in this semi-final. What we hadn’t seen before was Oracle making no gains on the run. There was a little more breeze today, and perhaps this was the difference – or maybe there never was much difference, and today Luna Rossa just got the best of the shifts. What mattered was that Luna Rossa had the same lead into the gate, and got to pick their side for the next beat.

And boy, did they pick a side. So far, it had been by the match race text book – but then we got the other story of this semi, one of those priceless Torben Grael moves that puts bums on seats, on the edges of seats… On the second beat, Luna Rossa and Oracle were at one point nearly 3 km apart. This is a dice roll – as it happened, Torben picked the right side - literally and metaphorically - but this is the wind we’re talking about… Still, Luna Rossa went round 29s in front and it was over. And Oracle are down three races to one.

Where do they go from here? Is it time for changes? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it – from the outside you can make a calm assessment, but with none of the inside knowledge. But on the inside, the pressure cooker is turned to the max… OneWorld Challenge went 3-0 down against Oracle in the semi-final repechage in Auckland, and I remember thinking - if we’re going to make any changes, now is the moment. At 4-1 or 4-0, it’s all over bar the shouting, even if the change makes a difference, a single mistake will put you out of it anyway. Not to mention that it smacks of desperation, and signals as much to the opposition.

OneWorld didn't make any changes, and perhaps there are no changes to be made for Oracle. Looking in from the outside, Oracle are losing this because Luna Rossa have a slight edge upwind, and Oracle keep getting the wrong side of the start line – the combination puts them in a tough hole. Who can turn that around for them now? Maybe Larry knows...

I’m embarrassed to have to admit I don’t know who’s making the weather calls for Oracle - Chris Bedford is the met man, but I'm not sure he does the first shift call. Certainly the roles are split at Luna Rossa - the met man is Doug Charko, whose dulcet tones can be heard most mornings on the Luna Rossa website doing the weather forecast. While Kiwi Hamish Wilcox is making the first shift calls - he did the same for Prada in 2000, and then OneWorld in 2003, before returning to the Italian fold. He and his weather team are playing a blinder right now.

Meanwhile, normal service was very much resumed for ETNZ – Barker came in at the pin end entry looking for retribution. He pulled off the balls-iest move in the book – backing out of the left-hand side of the dial-up and swinging his bow behind Desafio’s stern to get behind them and take control of the right hand side of the pre-start box. But ETNZ didn’t want the right any more than Luna Rossa did. So after getting the hook on the return to the line, they forced a down-speed Desafio to tack for the boat, while ETNZ put the bow down and started on starboard (at full speed and some) near the pin, before rolling onto port to cover Desafio. And that was pretty much that, the left paid for ETNZ just as it had for Luna Rossa. The Spanish never got a look in, and we have two teams who can see the brink, even if they aren’t looking over it yet…

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

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Mark Chisnell ©

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

A Game of Two Starts…

Both Louis Vuitton semi-finals went to 2-1 in the third race…

Two races, two stories, two-one - all settled on the start line when Desafio and Luna Rossa positioned themselves to the right hand side of their respective opponents. And the right paid like a triple rollover lottery... So far, BMW Oracle haven’t been round a single mark in front of Luna Rossa – they have crossed one finish line ahead, by 13s in the second race. But in the third of the series, the Italians repeated their first race clean sweep to take a 31 second win. For Desafio it was a remarkable reversal after the previous defeats - they stuck a penalty on ETNZ in the pre-start, then took the right off the line and came home 1 minute 14 seconds in front.

So, the starts… Desafio turning over the Kiwis is going to get the most attention, so we’ll begin there. The penalty developed from Karol Jablonski, at the helm of Desafio, repeating the move that Jimmy Spithill used to win yesterday’s pre-start against Oracle. From the pin end entry, he bailed out of the dial-up onto starboard, and then gybed round onto port. It sets you up to leeward and if the other boat hasn’t got enough speed to get down and across your bow, you’ve got control.

Dean Barker, at the wheel of ETNZ, may well have been worried about this, or he may just have felt that it was time to try and stick another one on Jablonski - either way, he forced another dial-up, and Jablonski repeated his gybe move. But this time ETNZ tacked away a little too sharply, ended up real slow, and sure enough, Desafio completed the gybe with plenty of pace, came screaming in to leeward, got the overlap and now ETNZ were on the ropes. Barker tried to escape by gybing across Desafio’s bow, and gave away the penalty. From there it got worse for ETNZ, as Desafio tacked away to take the right-hand side of the line. The Kiwis didn’t have the time or position to shut the Spanish out at the boat, although ETNZ got tight to leeward and forced Desafio to tack away. But they were headed for the right hand side of the beat, the Speed Restriction - No Overtaking signs were up all over the race course and that was pretty much that. Game over and Desafio pull it back to 2-1.

Oracle’s start against Luna Rossa was just as interesting. When the pair turned back towards the line on their final approach, Dickson and Oracle defended the left - they headed for the starboard tack layline for the pin. Luna Rossa chased them down there, but seemed more than happy to let Oracle have the left – Spithill said afterwards that their call was to win the right. Luna Rossa tacked away to start on port at the boat, with Oracle starting on starboard at the pin. Game over and Luna Rossa pull out to a 2-1 lead.

The thing here is that you don’t need to be the come-back kings if you win first crosses. And you don’t win first crosses if you can’t win starts and/or pick the right side off the line. Oracle’s come from behind record is great for the spectators, but it indicates what must be a worrying weakness for the boys in white. And today they paid for it.

On the face of it, you’d have to say that Desafio’s overnight reconfiguration (both they and Oracle were issued with new certificates before the race) was more successful than Oracle’s. But I don’t think too much can be drawn from today – the pattern was exactly the same in both races, the right hand side dominated. But having said that, the very fact that Oracle and Desafio have changed something, indicates that they might think they are going a little too quick downwind, and perhaps those wings needed a tweak…

The other thing that changed out there today was Luna Rossa’s tactical approach – Jimmy Spithill admitted as much in the post-race interview. He reckoned they’d talked about it overnight and decided to keep it tighter, and they did so successfully. And what does this mean in the light of my comments yesterday - that the loose tactics were as much about racing an even opponent, as about Torben’s desire to back his hunches? It probably means I was talking rubbish, certainly wouldn’t be the first time - particularly because the alternative conclusion would be that Luna Rossa think they have the measure of Oracle… Now why do I think I'm going to regret even bringing that topic back up?

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

www.markchisnell.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Day of the Tight Deltas

Or one tight delta at least..

ETNZ let Desafio shave 3 seconds off yesterday’s winning margin, the Kiwis crossing the finish line 40 seconds in front of the Spanish to go 2-0 up in their Louis Vuitton Semi-final. But all the action was with Oracle and Luna Rossa - Oracle pegged it back to 1-1 with a finish margin of just 13s – which tells you about as much of the story as the opening credits of a James Bond movie. And that’s what it was - all gun-slinging melodrama compared to the subtle tragedy played out between ETNZ and Desafio.

Where to start? Well, at the start… when Luna Rossa’s Jimmy Spithill bore away out of their port entry dial-up, fell onto starboard, and then gybed round to port to chase Oracle. It was a brilliantly executed move (I wonder how long Jimmy’s had that one in the locker waiting for the right moment?). It allowed Luna Rossa to get to leeward and overlapped sufficiently to pressure Chris Dickson into keeping high as they both sailed out to the right. They ended up over the starboard tack layline for the committee boat. From there, Dickson never got back into it, Spithill always had his hand on the door back to the start line. Oracle made a move to try and sail over Luna Rossa, didn’t make it, and when they subsequently started to try and push Luna Rossa back to the line both boats were late. The trouble for Oracle was that they were later, with Luna Rossa half a length directly in front of them and slamming the door shut in Oracle’s face….

What we saw next was Luna Rossa make some phenomenal gains upwind, to lead at the top mark by 58s, only for Oracle to reverse them downwind, and cut the margin to just 20s at the leeward gate. Oracle then turned a 14s deficit at the second windward mark, into a 13s win by (to all intents and purposes) just sailing past the Italian boat. So have Luna Rossa traded too much upwind speed for too little down, and Oracle done the opposite? In a post race interview, Luna Rossa’s navigator, Michele Ivaldi, reckoned that the gains came too quickly for it to just be about speed, and looking back through the race, I’m inclined to agree with him. Oracle went up the second beat quicker, and their gains downwind came in big jumps when they obviously had better breeze.

The Valencia sea breeze can be incredibly streaky (I remember that from trying to two-boat test there), and we saw that today, with boats just a 100m apart (never mind the 1500m split achieved at one point) in different breezes. But we’ll see if Michele really meant it tomorrow morning, when Luna Rossa will have to file a new certificate if they’ve made any changes to the boat. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between, Luna Rossa may have a tiny edge upwind, and Oracle may have a tiny edge downwind – and in this game a tiny edge can be used to apply pressure and make disproportionate gains, a bit like holding the T in squash, or getting to the net in tennis…

If there was a crux where Luna Rossa lost the match, it came when they let Oracle seperate out to the left halfway down the last run. Oracle were tight behind as the pair exited the top mark, but despite the pressure Luna Rossa matched Oracle's first gybe, and kept their air clear. Great defence. The next time Oracle tried it, Luna Rossa let them go, but not for long, and when they came back, the Italians had got a little gain. Perhaps emboldened by this breeze call and feeling the pressure because Oracle had been coming at them, at the next split Luna Rossa let Oracle get even further away. Not good defence. Oracle found a line of stronger breeze that the American's rode all the way past the Italians to the finish.

So, did the psychological pressure shift back to Luna Rossa in the final metres of today’s race? Not yet, but Luna Rossa have lost the chance to get a grip on the jugular. For Oracle to have gone 2-0 down - on the back of that loss to ETNZ in the last race of the round robin - would have been unsettling for the American team, to say the least. Now it’s even, and we start again from scratch.

There’s also been a lot of talk about the different tactical sailing styles, Torben (Grael/Luna Rossa) the magician sniffing the shifts and playing it loose, versus Terry (Hutchinson/ETNZ) trading distance for position and keeping it tight. I think there’s something in this, but it’s not the whole story. Right through the round robins we saw all the top teams play it really tight with the smaller teams – quite happy to trade tacks like punch drunk boxers until the only thing the headsail was good for was sailing bags (or shore-base construction in Luna Rossa’s case).

When the big teams know they are quicker and have better boat handling, they are happy to let those skills do the work, it’s more than enough advantage. But when they come up against each other, and there’s no more than the metaphorical fag paper between them, they have to dig deeper to find an edge. Where do they look for it? In their ability to read the breeze. The difference between the Luna Rossa v Oracle and ETNZ v Desafio racing is not so much one of style – we’ve seen Luna Rossa keep it tight with plenty of people – as a response to the opponent.

The other point worthy of note was Dickson’s aggression in going for the luff after Luna Rossa’s slam dunk tack at the top mark on the second beat. He’s caught Spithill like this before, and he obviously thought it was a worth another go. But it’s an all-or-nothing move – if you don’t get the penalty, and Dickson didn’t, you’re going to have to accelerate in all the bad air and waves of the other boat. Luna Rossa jumped back out to a two-length lead that they should have been able to hold on to…

Meanwhile, it was business as usual for Emirates Team New Zealand. Dean Barker and co. did a number on Desafio in the pre-start. This was all about the time back to the line, and Kevin Hall aboard ETNZ just had a much better idea than Matt Wachowicz, the navigator aboard Desafio. ETNZ chose to lead Desafio in the approach to the line, and never really needed to even look back. The Spanish were late and then got themselves under the layline for the committee boat. From there, they never looked like recovering. Terry Hutchinson, the ETNZ tactician, was happy to spend some of the 1m 15s delta they had at the top mark positioning his boat to keep the Spanish tucked away. The weekend is when Desafio’s supporters come out in force and they produce their best performances, but right now, it must seem a long way away…

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

www.markchisnell.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Monday, 14 May 2007

The Revenge of the Westerly

Luna Rossa and ETNZ go one race up...

It was a big first day in the semi-finals for the Louis Vuitton Cup - Luna Rossa beat BMW Oracle by 2m 19s, and ETNZ went a race up against Desafio Espanol by 43s. But don’t let those finish deltas fool you – it was shiftier than a bloke selling 'second-hand' Rolex’s at a car boot sale, with the gradient wind blowing out of the west and off the city.

The first move came at the pre-start entry with Oracle coming in from the pin against Luna Rossa and crossing them on port. We’ve seen Oracle pull this one off half-a-dozen times (at least) in the two Round Robins, and they did it again – crossing ahead of Luna Rossa, the starboard tacker, who was entering at the committee boat. Once Oracle had got past them, they owned the right-hand side of the pre-start box and had negated the disadvantage of the port tack entry.

A huge amount of effort goes into the software used in the pre-start, but it’s easy to forget about the timing for the entry. All the work goes into modeling and predicting the boat’s approach to the start line through the different tactical maneuvers – the gybe or tack back, reaching down to the starboard tack layline for the pin, accelerating from downspeed to the line. The focus is on approaching the line, sailing upwind in the final seconds. And we’ve seen over and over how good the teams are at this, with perfect start after perfect start.

But the entry is different – the line you’re looking at is actually perpendicular to the start line, as it runs upwind from the pin. So a separate time-on-distance calculation should be done specifically for the entry, to account for the different angle of the line. The next problem is that the boat is reaching towards this line, rather than sailing upwind. This is the only time that you need to know the boat’s reaching speed, and so this job (sailing on a reach in all different wind speeds and angles so you can accurately model it for future performance) can slip to the bottom of the list and never get done.

It’s easy to end up with a fudged calculation for the entry, based on the wrong line, and using the wrong prediction of the boat’s speed. But not with Oracle, it looks like they've spent the time and money smartly, reached into a few more dark corners than everybody else, and nailed this problem. Whatever they've done, it works and they’ve practiced the entry enough to be really slick and confident. And it’s paying dividends. It was also clear that Oracle had accounted for the current that was running across the start line - although it looked like Luna Rossa could lock them out at the boat, in the end Oracle got a good start to the right, and separated well enough to live.

Then it got really tricky. There were some massive shifts coming through, tacticians and wind spotters on both boats having to back their judgment as it was a tough day to try and cover the opponent. Luna Rossa took a big lead up the beat, then lost it all on the run. And this was the crux of the match - the leeward gate. An aggressive move from Oracle, as Luna Rossa gybed to windward. With both boats now on starboard and laying the gate, Dickson put the bow up and luffed hard to hold Luna Rossa out past the port gybe layline, hoping to lead back and have the choice of gate mark.

But Luna Rossa managed to break the overlap, and once they had done that, Oracle had to come down to her proper course and gybe back towards the gate. Luna Rossa’s crew did a fantastic job of matching Oracle’s gybe, getting the headsail up and spinnaker down and holding their own overlap as they trailed Oracle back to the gate. It gave them room and control to take the left-hand mark, and that was the side of the beat that Torben Grael and Andy Horton on Luna Rossa wanted - it was the side that paid big-time up the next beat. Luna Rossa led comfortably round the final windward mark, and the big delta came from the sea breeze trying to fill at the end and dumping Oracle in a hole. Still, I wonder what odds you could have got beforehand on Oracle losing by a delta in excess of two minutes?

The other match was much more straight-forward, ETNZ won the right hand side in the pre-start, used it to get control and a good lead up the first beat and never really looked like losing it. So, Luna Rossa and ETNZ go one up in the best of five series, but there’s a long way still to go.

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

Mark Chisnell ©

Sunday, 13 May 2007

The Louis Vuitton Semi's Begin...

Don't worry if you've been out of the America's Cup loop since the end of the Round Robins - your quick catch-up is right here....

There were some dull press conferences - nothing like the good old days of the Dennis and Tom show at the AC in Fremantle.
‘Why would you want to build one [a Twelve Metre] in glass unless you wanted to cheat,’ says Conner.
Quick as the cars he loved to drive, Blackaller sticks in, ‘I don't think you can say that, Dennis.’
‘I take it all back," retorts Conner.
To which Blackaller drawls, ‘I don't think you can.’

Ah, happy days...

The guys at CupInfo.com have come up with a stats package for the first two round robins. They are using some pretty broad brush numbers – leg times, deltas and passes. So do they tell us anything about the boats? They ignore everything from sail selection to wind shifts to crewing errors – but we learned at OneWorld that these basic numbers often tell the same tale as a much more sophisticated analysis (with data unavailable to us spectators), provided you use enough races. Well, we have 22 races now - so, what do we know?

The stats show that you wanted a boat pitched at 8-9 knots for Round Robin 1, and 10-11 knots for Round Robin 2. Peter Lester's blog reckons that ETNZ was configured for 9-11 knots, which is the wind speed they came good in in Round Robin 2. So, maybe there’s something in it, unless Lester made his judgement from the CupInfo stats… But hey, that’s how this works, right – too many people jumping to too many conclusions with too little information?

So let’s get stuck in and make some more. Downwind, ETNZ appears to get better as the breeze gets up relative to all the semi-finalists, while Oracle gets weaker. Like Oracle, Desafio and Luna Rossa also appear more light air orientated, but not as heavily gear shifted to that end of the range. But across all conditions downwind, ETNZ appear to have a little jump on everyone, while there’s not much between Luna Rossa and Oracle, with Desafio a bit off the pace.

Looking at the upwind stats, ETNZ didn’t appear to have a weakness, while Oracle, Luna Rossa and Desafio all appeared to be moded for the lighter air. Overall, ETNZ again appeared to have the edge, with Luna Rossa next, Oracle not far behind and Desafio trailing.

The stats tell us that we’ll see ETNZ go 5-0 against Desafio, and Luna Rossa and Oracle will go all the way to the bottom of the ninth… Personally, I think it may come down to whether or not Oracle can improve their first cross record. After all those come-from-behind wins I wondered if this weakness would hurt them, and it did against ETNZ in that final race. Yes, Oracle have passed Luna Rossa once, but I doubt Jimmy Spithill and co. will be as accommodating across a five race series.

What changes will the teams have made between the end of the round robins and the start of the semis? The races start later and I think we can expect the sea breeze to be stronger and better developed, so if changes are made it will be to go from a light to medium air mode - and again, using those stats, we'd be more likely to see Oracle, Luna Rossa and Desafio making changes than ETNZ.

Then there are the defeated, the seven teams whose participation - as the man used to say - is no longer required. Shosholoza have already declared their intent to be at the August Grand Prix in Kiel. As have the Germans, but it’ll be without Jesper Bank, who resigned last week. ‘No one in our team is used to such a series of defeats,’ he said at the UITG press conference last Thursday. ‘That's why it has not been easy for us. I am not content with my performance. I don't want to stand in the way for the development of this German campaign. I would like to thank the whole team for its great work in the past two years and I am proud that I have been part of the first German campaign.’ And with that, the double gold medalist fell on his sword. Just kidding.

But just as interesting was the news that the Germans have now started construction of the second Version 5 boat that they’re allowed in this Cup cycle. It will give them a crucial extra asset should they continue. The decision to build the second yacht was apparently made regardless of whether United Internet continued with them or not – the money for it was already in place.

There was also an up-tempo interview from St├ęphane Kandler, CEO, posted on the Areva website. They would obviously like to continue, and are going to do what GBR Challenge did at the end of the Auckland Cup, and finish their testing. But then, look what happened to GBR Challenge…

And finally, what of the Defender? Tim Jeffrey suggests Bertarelli might shut down the operation and take his toys away. It never pays to discount something like this when Tim puts it out there... but isn’t Bertarelli doing far too well out of this to stop? And on that note, another Pommie scribe, Stuart Alexander, reports that Bertarelli has just bought land alongside the likely Valencian Formula 1 street circuit that’s just been announced. And you can read that two ways - Bertarelli is swopping horses or leveraging his investment in the town...

But what about the story that CupinEurope.com found in La Libertad (now we're getting really seedy - stories from stories from stories...). Bertarelli apparently told Bernie Ecclestone, amongst others, that he was in favour of defending the next Cup in Valencia, should they hold onto it. He added that racing would take place every two years instead of four, with 2009 being set in Valencia and 2011 in Dubai, giving that country enough time to create the infrastructure necessary for such an undertaking. I say, enough already, let's go racing...

Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

www.tackbytack.com

Mark Chisnell ©