Tactical Wizardry, Upwind Magic Put Luna Rossa in the Lead

Tactician Torben Grael has orchestrated Luna Rossa's semifinals success against BMW Oracle Racing. "First Beat" from our May 18, 2007, /AC eNewsletter/

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Bruno Cocozza/ Luna Rossa Challenge

Is Luna Rossa Challenge running scared? BMW Oracle Racing grinder Craig Monk thinks the Italian team might be. But one thing is for sure, Luna Rossa is running, and scared or not, running quite quickly. In its semifinal tussle with BMW Oracle Racing, the Italian team has taken the advantage early in races and used a potent combination of upwind boatspeed and razor-sharp tactics to carry significant leads around the first windward mark in each of the first three races of the Louis Vuitton Cup semifinals. In fact, Luna Rossa has led around every mark. Only a furious comeback in Race 2 by BMW Oracle Racing has kept Luna Rossa from staking itself to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-9 series. As it stands now, James Spithill and his team on Luna Rossa Challenge have a 2-1 lead in the series, and a huge edge in terms of momentum. In the other series, Desafio Español lost the first two races without putting up much of a fight, but then showed some teeth on Wednesday, putting Emirates Team New Zealand in a serious hole during the prestart, when ETNZ helmsman Dean Barker jibed too close and picked up a penalty. The Spanish team then won the start and powered away for a wire-to-wire win, much to the delight of the hometown crowd.After a day off, the teams will get back to racing on Friday. With the prospect of a 3-1 hole staring BMW Oracle Racing and Desafio Español square in the face, both teams are in dire need to a victory."I guess it's a big one on Friday for us, 3-1 is a pretty tough pill to swallow," said Monk. "But at the moment it's only 2-1 so we can level it on Friday. We're going to go to all nine races for sure."Much like the round robin portion of the Louis Vuitton Cup, which was delayed for four days by a lack of wind, the semifinals started in a very atypical breeze, a gusty and shifty offshore breeze. For many sailors, this sort of peek-a-boo wind can make the race seem like a lottery. Fortunately, for Luna Rossa Challenge, tactician Torben Grael isn't most sailors. The two-time Olympic gold medalist grew up sailing on a small bay and excels in these conditions. Grael, with an able assist from strategist Andy Horton, Vermont's favorite son, picked the shifts perfectly in Race 1, often ignoring traditional match-racing tactics, and building a 52-second lead on the first beat.While BMW Oracle Racing was able to erase that lead on the first run, Luna Rossa was able to control which side of the gate it rounded and again use the variable breeze to build a big lead.Races 2 and 3 were sailed in a more typical easterly seabreeze and while Grael would occasionally slap a cover on BMW Oracle Racing upwind-the American boat has yet to lead around any mark in this series-he was also very willing to split away when he thought the breeze would work to his advantage. For a grinder like Monk, who's always itching for a tacking duel, it's been frustrating. "Luna Rossa is quite a hard team to match race against," he said. "They're very firm on their calls and they stick with it. The last three races they've really nailed the first beats. For us it doesn't leave much opportunity. It's almost like they're scared to come back at us and have a go. They're just sailing their own race, which is working right now."Battling sailing IQ with Grael is likely to be a losing proposition. As good as BMW Oracle Racing tactician Gavin Brady is, Grael is a rare talent. So to turn this series around, the American team is going to have to start winning some starts, according to strategist Eric Doyle, and getting in a position to control the first beat.While Barker, the helmsman for the New Zealand challenge, made a big show of what a tough choice it was to select Desafio Español as the opponent for the semifinals, the numbers told a different story. The Spanish team went 1-5 against the Big Three in the round robins and, with the exception of the win over BMW Oracle Racing, was handily beaten in each race. When Emirates Team New Zealand leapt out to a 2-0 series lead, winning each race by 40 seconds despite sailing conservatively, it seemed like the Spanish were even more off the pace than they'd been in the round robins. But after a tweak of ESP-97 following Tuesday's loss, the Spanish team came out blazing in Race 3 and quickly turned the tables on the New Zealand team. "For us today, the only thing that went right was the wind, and unfortunately we were on the left," said Barker after ETNZ's first loss since April 28, the final race of Round Robin 1. "We've had a good run. We're still very pleased with the way we're going. Today just was one of those days where things didn't start off well. I copped a penalty in the prestart, which was an error that I made. We still believed if we sailed well, if we controlled the race, there was a reasonable chance you could build up a big enough lead to offset the penalty. The guys were very focused and we worked very hard to start on the left side and control the race, but unfortunately the breeze went right a little bit quicker than we anticipated. Desafio did a very nice job of taking the right and utilizing that. When you've got a penalty you really need to be in front to have any chance of offsetting it and we weren't able to do that today."Emirates Team New Zealand is still the heavy favorite to advance to the finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup. But Barker had his struggles in the start box during the round robins, and it will be interesting to see how he responds and how hard Desafio Español's helmsman Karol Jablonski works to get an advantage off the line, or even another penalty.While BMW Oracle Racing says they're going fine upwind, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the boat get a new measurement certificate before racing starts on Friday, possibly to trade some of the blazing downwind speed the boat has shown for a little more zip upwind. But the difference in this series may not be anything BMW Oracle Racing can change at this stage. Spithill is sailing with confidence and Grael appears to be completely in sync with the capricious Valencian breeze. Unless Dickson can turn the tables in the prestart, and get the advantage off the line, either in terms of meters or merely position, Larry Ellison's team will find itself coming up short of its runner-up performance from 2003.