Finally, It Begins

After years of training and 13 practice regattas, the Louis Vuitton Cup starts on April 16. Here's a few things to look for as the racing gets underway, plus a prediction of the results following Round Robin 1.

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Courtesy Mascalzone Latino-capitalia

In 1995 the Louis Vuitton Cup started Jan. 12. After four round robins, a semifinal round, and the finals, it finished in mid-April. In 1999-'00, three round robins, a six-team semifinal round, and the finals took from Oct. 18, 1999, until Feb. 5, 2000. In 2002-'03 the LVC used a format that was clearly the result of someone having too much time on his or her hands. It started on Oct. 1, 2002, with two round robins-after which only one of nine teams was eliminated. The remaining eight teams then entered into a modified double-elimination tournament that didn't wrap up until Jan 19.This time around, the Louis Vuitton has been condensed, or maybe the better word is distilled. It's more compact, but it certainly will pack a wallop. From Monday's opening races to the finish, the Louis Vuitton Cup won't even take two months, less time than the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs, which follow a 6-month regular season. Even with Act 13, which was little more than an exhibition event, the entire 2007 racing schedule for all but one of the challengers in the Louis Vuitton field won't stretch past 10 weeks. Seven of the 11 will be packing up shop by May 7.So what does this mean for the sailors preparing for Monday's opening round in the race for the America's Cup? "If you look at the schedule, it goes pretty fast," says Morgan Larson, a veteran of three Cup campaigns sailing with Victory Challenge. "It's not like the past Cups where the first round wasn't worth very many points and you could slowly work your way into it until it really counted. Now it all counts. I think you're going to see some teams kind of shell-shocked after two weeks."Tony Rey, of Desafio Español, puts it another way: "The short answer is, like you're hearing from everybody, that we're nervous as hell going into every race."The pairings for the round robins were released early last week. As of Monday, the Desafio camp had yet to analyze them, but Rey says they will have done their homework by Monday. With two races scheduled for most days, Round Robin 1 will be a tornado of activity, with little chance for reflection or analysis. Adding to the chaos is the weather in Valencia, which has been erratic of late. While it is expected to settle into more familiar patterns at some point this spring, the changeable weather could play a big role in the early going."I think getting through the round robin is the hardest part of the regatta," says Emirates Team New Zealand tactician Terry Hutchinson. "You can lose races to anybody. You come up to the Arevas or the +39s of the world in their one sweet spot and there's a very realistic chance they'll beat you in the race. I think there's a huge potential here for teams to be upset."With that in mind, let's take a look at some expected highlights from Round Robin 1 of the Louis Vuitton Cup. The complete schedule for both round robins can be downloaded by clicking here.Monday, April 16: Right off the bat, first flight, first race on northern course, there's a huge battle between Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia and Emirates Team New Zealand. Many Cup sailors have tabbed the Latin Rascals as the second-tier team that will make life difficult for the top dogs. A loss won't kill ETNZ, they've got a cushion thanks to the four bonus points they won in the Louis Vuitton Acts. A win for MLC, however, would be a huge coup. In Flight 2 keep an eye on the match between Victory Challenge, which was a bit scattered during Act 13, and Luna Rossa Challenge. Tuesday, April 17: Flight 3 offers little in the way of excitement, though we would be wise to heed Hutchinson's insight. Look out for races featuring odd conditions: flat water, light air, shifty offshore breezes, big wind and waves, etc. In Flight 4 all eyes will be on MLC versus Desafio Español. This could be the battle for that coveted fourth spot.Wednesday, April 18: In Flight 5 our first match-up between the big three with Luna Rossa and BMW Oracle squaring off. The Italians have been steady through the Acts, but rarely exhibited the sort of speed people think they need to win the Cup. Meanwhile, everyone's all but convinced BMW Oracle has another gear they haven't shown yet. This should answer a lot of questions. Thursday, April 19: Flight 7, like Flight 6 the day before, seems to be an easy one to pick. But that should make all the favorites nervous. Getting through 10 matches without a single upset seems quite unlikely. So who will stumble? In Flight 8, Victory versus Areva Challenge will be a must-win for both teams. Friday, April 20: Day off, though racing could be scheduled here if any have been missed. Saturday, April 21: The north course will be hopping. In Flight 9 it's BMW Oracle and MLC, Desafio Español and Victory, and ETNZ and Luna Rossa. In Flight 10, Luna Rossa and MLC in an all-Italian slugfest, ENTZ and Victory, and BMW Oracle and Desafio Español. All six have the potential to be close. Watch out for Victory Challenge. The Swedish team hasn't had a ton of time in its new boat. They should get stronger with every race.Sunday, April 22: Round Robin 1 ends like it began. The last match on the south course features Grant Dalton's ETNZ versus Chris Dickson's BMW Oracle Racing and could well decide who carries the overall lead into the second round robin. Also on the south course, it's Luna Rossa against the Spanish and Mascalzone against Victory. It's also worth noting that while the big dogs are going toe-to-toe in Flights 9 through 11, any of the other teams could make a run. Areva and +39 Challenge both close Round Robin 1 with three eminently winnable races.Now that we've dissected the first round robin, here's a prediction for the final standings at the end of the first go around. Remember wins are worth 2 points, which will be added to the bonus points each team carried into the regatta.1. Emirates Team New Zealand (8-2) 20 points. ETNZ will fall to Oracle on the final day.2. BMW Oracle Racing (8-2) 19 points. Will nip ETNZ, but get upset in two other matches along the way.3. Luna Rossa Challenge (7-3) 17 points. What will they do to turn up the heat in Round Robin 2?4. Mascalzone-Latino Capitalia (7-3) 16 points. One Cup sailor used the word "volatile" when describing this team. Vasco's boys will take at least one of the Big 3 down during the week. They'll also lose one match they shouldn't.5. Desafio Español (6-4) 15 points: Fast enough to scare the big teams. But are they fast enough to beat one of them? 6. Team Shosholoza (6-4) 14 points: A veteran afterguard, a spirited team, and a truckload of support from fans around the globe could prove a powerful mixture for this first-time team. 7. Victory (5-5) 12 points: May struggle early. If the boat has some speed, they could factor in Round Robin 2.8. United Internet Team Germany (3-7) 7 points: It's hard to find a more experienced duo than skipper Jesper Bank, 50, and tactician Dave Dellenbaugh, 53. They, and the rest of the team, didn't show much in Act 13, but Bank has been sailing with nothing to lose for 3 years now, and he has gotten pretty good at it.9. Areva Challenge (3-7) 7 points: Sebastien Col is a talented match racer, but the team's struggles in Act 13 don't portend a strong showing. It's hard to see tactician Thierry Peponnet's last-minute decision to step down making much of a positive impact.10. +39 Challenge (2-8) 6 points: If they can make the regatta-they still need a rig in the boat after losing their only new one in Act 13-look for Olympians Iain Percy and Ian Walker to roll the dice early and often. They will make life miserable for a couple of middle-tier teams.11. China Team (0-10) 1 point: Only a breakdown or serious boathandling error will get these guys a win. But that's a more realistic possibility than you might think.