Emirates Team New Zealand sailed onto the Great Sound racecourse this afternoon with an authoritative 2-to-1 advantage in the first-to-five Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Challenger Playoffs, but there was a few lingering “what ifs” for fans and observers to weigh.
What if Artemis Racing Team helmsman Nathan Outteridge hadn’t fallen off the boat? Or what if the Swedes hadn’t sailed off the course in Race 2 to give the Kiwis a gift? And what if Team New Zealand had actually won a start or two…would Artemis had even stood a chance?
So many questions. And as the series progresses, Artemis Racing seems to have fewer answers.
If today’s races confirm anything, however, it’s that Emirates Team New Zealand has no interest in winning the starts or being first around Mark 1. It’s a cruel game of cat and mouse on Bermuda’s Great Sound, one in which the New Zealanders are happy to give Artemis a lead, just so they can make them work a little harder before going for the jugular.
In the first race of the day, Artemis did an outstanding job fending the Kiwis off with what Nathan Outteridge felt was a proper foil selection for the expected conditions. They went for their high-speed configuration, and the stronger-than-forecast conditions played into their decision. But as the breeze faded into the sweet spot for Emirates Team New Zealand, the next two races played out nearly identical, with Artemis winning the start, leading at Mark 1 and fending off every Kiwi advance.
With nearly even speeds down the offwind legs, Artemis either held or extended slightly, but as soon as they turned the corners upwind, you could practically hear the Team New Zealand pickaxes chipping away at their lead (although the odd clicking sound coming from onboard Emirates Team New Zealand, Burling would later say, was a technical but not critical issue with the cycles). As best Artemis Racing could to do to fend them off, once the Kiwis pounced on any slight mistake, they were quickly past and long gone.
In the day’s second race, Artemis retired before finishing, allowing them additional time to sort out a technical issue with the boat’s port daggerboard, and in the third and final race, the New Zealanders edged past them with better speed. The downwind legs are not long enough to build enough of a cushion and the upwind legs allow more time and distance for the New Zealanders to do their thing.
The New Zealanders were not perfect, however. Far from it. While leading into the final turning mark to the finish of today’s third race, Burling misjudged a layline and rushed a jibe through the gate, bringing the boat to a near stop while Artemis stormed through the gate in a hopeful blaze of blue glory. Crowds in the grandstand grew ecstatic as it appeared Artemis might – just – nip the New Zealanders at the finish.
Another few meters might have made a difference, if only …. but Kiwis took back their gift and traded Artemis a gutting 1.3-second defeat.
So now the series goes into extra innings with New Zealand up by two again. They only need to win one more race, predicted to be at the bottom of the sailable wind range. If New Zealand emerges victorious, they will face their nemesis in a scripted re-match of AC34 in San Francisco, and they will find themselves against a seasoned defender that’s been out every day since the end of the Round Robins, training alongside Groupama Team France, SoftBank Team Japan, and Ben Ainslie Racing, all of whom have a collective keen interest in making sure Emirates Team New Zealand does not leave Bermuda with the Cup in hand.
How does Burling feel about the challenger gang up?
“We feel the defenders are a really tight group, but from the racing here, whichever one of us gets through it’s a good opportunity to take down Oracle,” he says. “It’s something a lot of these guys would like to see, to have someone beat them. We’re just going about our business trying to win races and that’s all we can do.”
True enough, But still there remains one more what if: What if Artemis goes three straight as they did against SoftBank Team Japan in the Qualifiers?
It would be amazing comeback story for sure, one the New Zealanders know all too well.