Morning Toast, 2012 Olympics, Day 8
To kick off our second week of Olympic coverage, we look at all the math and potential maneuvering involved in today's two medal races.
Jonas Hoegh-Christensen (right) and Ben Ainslie (left) at the finish of Race 9 in the Finn class. Will the order be reversed in today's medal race?
On Tap for Today:
Medal Races: Finn at 1300, Stars at 1400, on the Nothe Course
Women’s 470: Race 5 on Weymouth Bay West, no earlier than 1400, Race 6 on the Nothe Course, approximately 1530
49er: Races 12 and 13 on Weymouth Bay West Course, starting at noon
RS:X Women: Races 9 and 10 on the Portland Harbour Course, starting at noon
RS:X Men: Races 9 and 10 on the Portland Harbour Course, starting at 1330
Some strong showers moved through early this morning, leaving behind a fabulous day off Weymouth and Portland. Partly cloudy skies, lots of breeze from the south to southwest. This will mean shifty, puffy conditions on the Nothe Course. Great sailing on the other circles.
What to Watch For:
Love it or hate it—and there are sailors and sailing fans in both camps—the medal race makes for some interesting closing scenes to Olympic class regattas. It cannot be discarded, so there’s often a lot of opportunity for moving up or moving down. In the Stars and the Finns we have two very interesting races shaping up.
Stars: The names that will appear on the medals have been decided. With a 23-point difference between third and fourth, there is no chance for anyone to push one of the top three teams off the podium. The medal race is scored double, but only 10 teams make it. So the maximum point differential that can be achieved in a medal race is 18 points—20 if for some reason a boat doesn’t finish the race.
The Math: For the Stars, Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson of Great Britain have a solid grasp on first. The gap to second (Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada of Brazil) is eight points, with third (Freddie Lööf and Max Salminen of Sweden) four points further back.
A fourth or better will win the Brits the gold. Staying within three boats of the Brazilian team and six boats of the Swedish team will also ensure Percy and Simpson the gold.
The Options: For Percy and Simpson, it’s all about getting a good start and sailing in clear air for at least the first half of the beat. Should they do this, you can expect to see Scheidt and Prada turn their focus toward preserving their silver, which they can lock in by finishing right behind the Swedish duo.
The Brazilian and Swedish teams will be looking for an early, significant mistake by Percy and Simpson: A bad start, getting caught in a lull, or on the wrong side of the course when the wind shifts. Should that happen—possible, but not likely—then the Brazilian and Swedish teams may take the opportunity on the first beat to put the British boat into a bit of trouble if they can do so without compromising their position. The Stars are often so close around the windward mark—which could be even more pronounced on a short course—that it doesn’t take much to push a boat from fifth to last.
Once they turn downwind, however, there’s little they can do to hurt a boat behind. At this point they will likely focus on their own races. With the margin between second and third less than between first and second, focusing on winning gold will require a willingness to put silver on the line.
How It Will Play Out: The Stars are usually the last class to feature any pre-start match racing, or even in-race, one-on-one fisticuffs. Plus Percy and Simpson have been nearly unstoppable after opening the regatta with an 11th. An error on their part is unlikely. The battle for silver is likely to be more interesting. With nothing to lose, expect Lööf and Salminen to engage Scheidt and Prada in the pre-start, or soon after. If Scheidt and Prada get ahead off the line—and Percy and Simpson are off to a good start—then the Brazilians should put a tight cover on the Swedes for the rest of the race.
The Outcome: Lööf has a bronze from 2008 in the Star and 2000 in the Finn. He’ll go all out for an upgrade. Final overall positions: GBR first, SWE second, BRA third.
Finn: In this class it’s both more complicated and less complicated. For the gold, basically it’s simple. It’s Ben Ainslie vs. Jonas Hoegh-Christensen. The winner in that duel will take the gold. UNLESS Pieter-Jan Postma, of the Netherlands, is able to put six boats between himself and Ainslie and seven boats between himself and Hoegh-Christensen. And this is where it gets complicated, because Postma has a few sailors also hungrily eyeing his bronze medal. Should he go for broke, trying to either force either Ainslie or Hoegh-Christensen into a bad race, and make a mistake, any one of three sailors, Jonathan Lobert of France, Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic of Croatia, and Vasilij Zbogar of Slovenia, could potentially steal the bronze medal by putting either three (Lobert and Gaspic) or four (Zbogar) sailors in between himself and Postma.
The Options: For Ainslie and Hoegh-Christensen, the first choice is how much to engage the other sailor during the pre-start. They can each decide to treat this race like a normal medal race, just go for the best possible start, or one or both of them can treat it like a match race within a fleet race, and do everything possible to get the upper hand on the opponent during the start. Once the race has started—especially if both sailors stick with a more traditional starting philosophy—there’s another option to engage: find out where the opponent is, gauge whether you’re in a controlling position, and, if so, determine how to take advantage without compromising too much distance relative to the fleet.
For Postma, he would need to both affect either Ainslie or Hoegh-Christensen’s start and also get himself a front-row start. That’s a difficult chore. Once the race starts, it’s very difficult to put a handful of boats between you and an opponent. The only place that can be done is at the start, and that also leaves plenty of time for your opponent to pass a few boats and erase the necessary differential.
How it Will Play Out: Hoegh-Christensen has said a couple of times he hopes that Ainslie treats this like a normal race, and that the best sailor wins. Fat chance of that. For Hoegh-Christensen’s sake, I pray he’s hoping for the best, but expecting the worse. Ainslie knows he has both the better temperament and skill set for a match race. He also knows that Postma is likely to have a battle on his hands for third and may have trouble breaking away from any of his three pursuers. Ainslie will engage Hoegh-Christensen before the start to some extent, with the intent of getting a good start himself, but, more importantly, a slightly better start than the Danish sailor. He can’t sacrifice his own start to ruin the Dane’s, but he can make life difficult. If he can do that, and Postma struggles to get off the line, Ainslie will put the clamps on Hoegh-Christensen. It won’t be easy to keep them on, however. If he gets behind, Hoegh-Christensen should have options to separate on the upwind by getting into a tacking duel, forcing Ainslie to choose between slowing down to cover his opponent and sticking with the rest of the fleet. Hoegh-Christensen can also decide to keep it close on the first upwind leg then attack on the downwind. If he can close the gap on the run, the leeward gate is a great opportunity to split from an opponent and look for a favorable shift.
Postma is going to be under attack from the start. It’s almost three against one. If any of the three sailors with a shot at bronze can force him over the line or into a compromised start, the bronze medal is suddenly up for grabs. From that point on, he’ll struggle to find a decent lane up the beat and could fall well behind.
If this happens, that will turn the Ainslie-Hoegh-Christensen duel into a full-fledged match race, especially on the second beat and final run to the finish.
The Outcome: I’d love to see Hoegh-Christensen hold on to his lead. He’s a worthy sailor. But Ainslie in any kind of match-racing situation is just too tough. In the end, I think Hoegh-Christensen will rue letting the Dutch sailor get past him at the tail end of Race 10. That one point could be his undoing. Additionally, I don’t see Postma hanging on to his lead. Final results: GBR first, DEN second, SLO third.