Alinghi Wins a Thriller, Takes 3-0 Lead in Series

Stuart Streuli

Somehow, somewhere, during the scheduled lay day on Tuesday, Oracle/BMW Racing found the solution to the speed deficit that cost it the first two races of the Louis Vuitton Final. But it still wasn't enough. In the most exciting race of this Louis Vuitton Cup, Russell Coutts and his Alinghi team were able to bait Oracle into picking up a penalty during a furious luffing duel on the second downwind leg and, despite trailing by between three and five boatlengths for the final two legs of the race, win the race as Oracle was unable to scrub the penalty quickly enough at the finish line. The finish delta should've been just a few seconds, but Oracle hit the finish pin while doing its penalty turn and had to complete a second turn before finishing the race. With the win, Alinghi took a commanding 3-0 lead in the best of nine series which will determine who gets to challenge for the America's Cup. "It was a tough race," said Murray Jones, a member of Alinghi's afterguard. "It could've gone either way."

The day started rather slowly, with both teams and hundreds of spectator boats bobbing about on the Hauraki Gulf as the scheduled 10-knot southerly never showed up. With the 4 p.m. deadline nearing, a northerly started to build and the race started in a 7-knot breeze that quickly increased to double digits. Taking advantage of a boat-favored line, Alinghi, which started at the pin, drove across Oracle’s bow on port and led the San Francisco syndicate deep into the starboard corner of the starting area. Both boats turned back at about the same time. Oracle tried in vain to luff Alinghi, but Coutts won the start, nailing the line, and took the early lead. Unlike the previous two races where Alinghi showed a distinct speed advantage, Oracle--with Peter Holmberg remaining at the helm for the entire race for the first time in this series--was able to hang close upwind and only trailed by 8 seconds at the first windward mark.

Oracle continued to show a speed advantage downwind, closing the gap as the boats neared the first leeward mark. But Coutts used some smart match racing to create a 13-second lead as they headed back upwind. Oracle hung close on the third leg, gaining a second, and then took a commanding windward position as the boats headed downwind on staraboard. Coutts tried to luff Holmberg, but Oracle was able to roll right over the top of the Swiss boat and take the lead. As the boats reached the starboard layline, both jibed in unison and another luffing duel ensued, this one with Oracle to leeward and on the attack. A number of close encounters, and some frenetic flag waving by both teams, left Oracle with a penalty to burn for not giving way to a boat clear ahead and tapping Alinghi on the stern after the Swiss boat had broken the overlap.

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| Stuart Streuli|

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| Oracle leads Alinghi down the final run, hoping, in vain, to build enough of a lead to be able to complete a penalty turn and still win the race.* * *|

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Though they’d picked up a penalty, Oracle maintained their slight lead, which they extened to a four boatlengths on the fifth leg. Oracle tactician Tomasso Chieffi said the didn’t consider doing their penalty turn at the top mark. "We thought it was a bit closer at the top mark," he said. "In hindsight we should’ve done it there." As they rounded the windward mark for the final run the word from the Oracle’s afterguard was that they needed to add three boatlengths to their lead to give it enough time to complete the turn and still win the race. It didn’t happen. Sailing conservatively, Alinghi stuck to Oracle’s stern and crossed just a few second before Holmberg completed his penalty turn.

Though the loss puts them in a very difficult position, Chieffi said the team was encouraged by their strong performance on the water. "It’s not time to write us off yet," said Chieffi. Jones agreed that this series could still go down to the wire. "I really don’t think there’s a lot [of difference] between the boats," he said," and the margins in the two previous races were quite flattering."

Race Statistics, Race III
Breeze: 10 to 12 knots, from 360 degrees to 20 degrees
Oracle approached from starboard, Alinghi approached from port
Course Deltas
Alinghi won the start
1st mark: Alinghi by 8 seconds
2nd mark: Alinghi by 13 second
3rd mark: Alinghi by 12 seconds
4th mark: Oracle by 8 seconds
5th mark: Oracle by 29 seconds
Finish: Alinghi by 63 seconds