Matt, maybe we should start with your take on everything that has happened since before the Prada America’s Cup World Series regatta. Your overall look back on it.
Well, it’s been like a roller-coaster. It was definitely a tough place. I came to New Zealand in December and when I came out of quarantine we already knew then that we were up against the wall a little bit performance-wise. With the World Series looming we were starting to get a few ideas after sailing near other boats and it was becoming apparent we were kind of OK straight line, but we knew in maneuvers we seemed to be down speed.
It’s weird—the way this Cup has been designed—there was always meant to be very little sailing done. It was not accidental; that was the Cup the Kiwis wanted —they wanted most of the bulk of the work to be done on the computer, in the design stage and less on the water. And by the very nature of that, there has been very little opportunity to line up. But we kind of had an inkling what the problem was, but obviously the World Series was really, really tough for everyone in the team.
I think the hardest thing was that it felt a lot like Bermuda where we were in a similar situation and just off the pace. And it’s horrible. It’s just such a terrible feeling and you kind of wondered just how we were going to get out of it— especially it being that bad. I think there was always optimism in a sense, in that we were so far off the pace that it seemed like it was something you could identify and then it was fixable. We just knew it was something fundamental; it wasn’t a flaw in the design package we had—it just wasn’t quite working in the way we thought it would. So, it was all about trying to identify what it was and moving some of the blocks around and slotting them into place, which took a huge amount of work. The design team worked so hard—and the shore team implementing the changes.
Can you be more specific about which area of the boat was the critical one because obviously we know from Ben [Ainslie] that tons of things have been changed and there has been a focus on the sails and on the foils. Can you say which area was the critical one?
Well, we can’t say too much. We can’t give too much away. But yes, we obviously had a new rig, new sails and we did some changes to the wings. That’s kind of where we found most of the gains really.
The interesting thing right now is that you have been racing in medium-to-strong winds and you’ve had that one race against American Magic’s Patriot in very light air, but it was so light that it was more patchy than windy…Ben was saying it wasn’t a true read. At the moment is there a feeling that the team still hasn’t solved the light-air problem?
To an extent we still need to improve on that. There’s no question that the down-speed aspect is still something we need to have a good hard look at. When you look at the racing we’ve done, all that hard work has obviously paid off and its been a massive boost for the team, but we are also very aware that we’ve got a long, long way to go and so much to look at. Also, when you look at the races we’ve done, weather-wise we’ve raced the right people at the right time. We had the Americans when it was light; we had Luna Rossa when there was more breeze and their strengths are the other way round. So we know we’ve got an uphill climb to get to where we need to be.
You’ve got a 20-day break now – how will the work and activity be divided up over this period?
Mostly development stuff. Certainly all of this week is going to be focused on looking at developments, changes, how we sail the boat. Then we will get more into race focus next week. But there is a lot of stuff still on the table – changes that we thought about implementing long before. Now is an opportunity to maybe have a look at one or two of those things. But it is difficult; it is one of those things when it is hard to know how much to change and you don’t want to go too far. I think it’s more tweaks than wholesale changes, but there are still so many little gains to be found. Trust me, there is plenty of stuff on the shelf that’s been talked about and things that we want to look at and try and now is a really good opportunity to do that.
Can you explain the option choice as to whether or not you would ever use a Code Zero? Grant Dalton (CEO of Team New Zealand) has said TNZ is planning to use one in a very narrow wind band. Can we expect to see Ineos team UK out practicing with that or not?
Yeah, it’s definitely possible. I think the big problem with those sails is that they don’t necessarily get you up on the foils much quicker, believe it or not. You would think that that extra drive would help you do the job, but actually you get a lot of side force as well on the foils and actually they are not that great. There is definitely some work to be done there if we get some light-air opportunities. All the teams are thinking there are possibilities with them – they’ve got potential – but no one has quite been able to get them to work yet. It is interesting that the Kiwis are talking about it. It’s on the table, that’s for sure.
Is the issue that you have to have it on the rig furled, if you are not using it, and the penalty in terms of weight and drag of doing that?
No one is even furling them now. The problem with furling is having winches to be able to furl it back up, so you would literally be sailing with it for the whole race without a jib. So yeah, you would make the choice pre-race and that would be your headsail basically. And of course with the nature of these boats, as soon as you are up and foiling, you don’t want all that drag – you want that thing a lot flatter and a lot smaller. So that’s the problem really. It’s funny isn’t it, because you look at the light-air race we had with the Americans and you’d think for sure a Code Zero must help but actually, because of the amount of time we did get up foiling, it would have been a big old air drag. It would have been fine for the displacement stuff but that’s not where the race is won and lost. But yes, the Code Zero still has potential.
There has been much comment among sailors in Britain pointing out that what we have been seeing is top-class match race sailing by the British crew. It’s hard to point to any to any mistakes they have made in any of those five wins. It’s fascinating to get your view on this because you have two guys leading the team on the water, in Ben and Giles Scott (tactician), who are battle-hardened from the Olympics. Is that your impression, because the Italians seem to be making mistakes and the Americans have made mistakes, while the British crew look like they are in their element?
When we analyze our racing, it is definitely going really, really well. The boys are sailing really well, there is no question about that and I think they are all feeling good about it. But you can still find mistakes that are there. There are things that we could have done better – no question. There are always gains to be made. As good as it looks, the real problem we have – and it’s the same for all the teams – is we’ve done so little sailing in these boats and so little racing. I mean no racing compared to what you’d do in any other America’s Cup. You think back to the Cup we had back here in 2003 and the Cup in Valencia; you just sailed all the time and you went racing all the time. You spent three years doing it and everyone got really, really good at sailing those boats. There hasn’t been those opportunities, which is frustrating for everyone, but you are seeing everyone getting better and better and it’s a bit of a funny one with us not being in the semi-finals now. The benefit of being in there is you are going to get a bit more race practice and that is pretty key right now.
PRADA Cup 2021 – Round Robin 3
Obviously we are looking in from the outside and some of the headline characters are getting a lot of coverage. Who would you pick out over the last four weeks that perhaps have not been highlighted?
Obviously Giles and Ben are getting all the plaudits and you hear their comms all the time on the feed. But then you’ve got Luke Parkinson and Leigh McMillan doing the flight control stuff. When it comes down to the maneuvers and things like that, that is really in their wheelhouse. So they are doing a fantastic job there. I think you’ve got to bring Bleddyn Mon (mainsail trimmer) into the conversation…He is a really good young talented British sailor, but he is also very technical. He’s a smart guy with a design background. When we first found him back in the BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing) days, we were racing in the Extreme Sailing Series and in that series you could have an amateur. We started talking to Bleddyn who at that time was doing an internship with Red Bull Racing and helping their design team. We thought: ‘Wow! We better have a chat with this guy.’ So we got him involved both on the design side and on the sailing side and actually he turned out to be a golden find and super fit too. Now he has stepped into this new role of trimming the wing and he’s doing a great job. It’s not an easy position but he’s done brilliantly over the last few weeks – I’m really proud of how his development has been.
There has been lots of coverage of the crew roles on Britannia, with Ben as full time helm and Giles as full time tactician, with only six grinders and the athwartship set-up of the pedestals and the way the weight is distributed. Do you feel all of that is adding up to major differential between you and the Americans and you and the Italians?
It’s hard to know. It feels good. It feels like we have made the right decisions there. But is it really hard to know. It is definitely working well for us. It suits the people we’ve got. It suits our style of sailing but, that said, Luna Rossa are making a very good fist of it too and they are very, very hard to beat. So I think it is still small margins – we are definitely happy with it, but it’s certainly not going to make us unbeatable just because of that. At the end of the day it is still going to come down to whoever’s the fastest. It’s still going to be a boatspeed game. The America’s Cup always is – every time it comes down to that. It has never been won by a slower boat. Even if you are a click slower, you never quite get there.
The early impression is that TNZ has been a step ahead of all three of the challengers and that was the feeling all the way through to Christmas and probably in the early part of January. Is that still the feeling? Do you believe they are beatable by somebody in the Cup?
Yes, I do, but I think they are still ahead. It’s going be quite a mammoth task to get to where they are on boatspeed by whoever’s going to take them on. They are beatable because, as we’ve seen, things change so quickly. Look what’s happened to the Americans. Will it come down to things like that? Probably not, but you just never know – there is so much boatspeed to be found with these boats still. Just even in the way we sail them, there are lots of gains to be made so yeah, they are definitely beatable. We’ve seen it before. It’s not about being the fastest at the beginning, it’s about being the fastest at the end. And often the boats that are quick in the early days then kind of stall and max out their potential. But yes, I think we’d still look at them as quicker than everyone else right now and more of an all-round package – in any conditions everyone would struggle to beat them right now.
On the subject of the Americans, they obviously had a boat that is seriously quick in the breeze and they have had this massive setback. Do you see them as a potential Prada Cup finalist or is that a real long shot?
I think it is going to be a huge long shot. Firstly, you wouldn’t wish it on anyone what has happened to them, but even just the systems side of it is very difficult. If we were to take all of our systems out of the boat and then put them back in and try and race next weekend, I mean, Jesus, you would have all sorts of gremlins. They are going to get maybe one day sailing and then the tough thing is, in the first two days, if they lose four races, they are done. So they have got to hit the ground running. It’s a massive ask. To try and get the boat to measure correctly will be difficult – the weight is going to be one of the problems, trying to make sure it is correct. I really hope that they can do it. You never know. You can always get surprised by these things and hopefully they can turn it round, but I think they are going to be really struggling.
Isn’t it slightly weird that in some ways they have got the package to win this and yet they could be the first team to go home?
Yes. It is very strange and it must be hugely frustrating for them. The hardest thing is that it is so hard to do well in your first Cup as a team – really, really hard. Just trying to get all the right people in the right places in the team, all the management side, starting from five people sitting round a table and a clean slate and putting it all together. Then trying to build it up and especially with this Cup which is so technical. We’ve never seen anything like it – you’ve got to really be on your game. So for them to be at the stage they were – they were was so impressive – really impressive. But I don’t think anyone realizes the mammoth effort that it takes to design, build and then sail these boats. It’s unprecedented in yacht racing. So to get where they did and now it’s really frustrating and all down to 10 crazy seconds where things just unraveled for them. So it’s tough. They have managed to finish two races so far and if they can’t get their act together they are only going to do a few more. They have got to win in the next four races or that’s them done and dusted and that’s pretty tough isn’t it?
And your read-out on the Italians who look like they are going to be your principal opponents to try and get to ETNZ in the Match? You’ve beaten them three times in a row; what are your feelings about them?
I think they are going to be really hard to beat. It is looking that way right now and if it is the case, I think it will be a fantastic Prada Cup final. That last race we had against them was just nuts. I think it is going to be a lot of that. We have faced them when it’s been good breeze; when it is a little lighter they are going to be very hard to beat. So yeah, it could be multiple wins for both teams before it is finally decided. We won’t feel comfortable that we have it in the bag – it will be a really tough series. You know Jimmy (Spithill) and (Francesco) Bruni, they are very, very tenacious and they pre-start really well. We run stats on everyone’s pre-starts and they win a lot more than they lose and every pre-start we have with them, it could go either way.
There was that wonderful cross downwind at 45 knots that decided the race against them on Saturday. Do you think we are going to see more and more of that type of thing as this series develops – really nail-biting, millisecond margins between boats – and let’s hope no one gets it wrong big time?
Well yeah, that’s it. That would be terrible to see. I think unfortunately we could see a bit more attrition though. The Italians have had gear failures; we’ve had them and obviously the Americans have got a massive one. Hopefully that doesn’t rear its ugly head too much, but it probably will. But, yeah, I think it will be really close (with the Italians). We are pretty evenly matched right now and it will be tough. Anything we can do in the next two weeks to find a little bit of boatspeed – especially in the light-air stuff – will be a huge bonus. Right now it would be a tough one to call.
Grant Dalton was saying this weekend that he will back moves by the British team to have a fresh look at the measurement rules. This is in the light of what Ben was saying, after the race against the Italians on Saturday, about the one strike that the British team has for an infringement. He made it clear this was not a performance-enhancing infringement but he was clearly irritated that a second strike would mean the team being disqualified from one race in the Prada Cup final. Can you shed a little of light on where you are with this issue and what you are hoping can happen?
We would like to see the rule changed so that your second offence doesn’t mean you start getting disqualified from races…It just seems a little too harsh. It’s a funny one because it has been sitting there in the rules for while. But it is not until you are in that precarious situation of having that yellow card, that it really becomes quite apparent that it is not a good rule.
Which team protested you?
Yeah, it was the Italian team.
And they would presumably have to agree as Challenger of Record with the defenders (TNZ) to a change in the rules?
Yes exactly; we don’t get a say in it. It is between them and TNZ. The other thing to say is that what we were fined for, and the non-compliance we had, was very legitimate, so them putting the complaint in was fine. We’ve got no issue with that at all and they were absolutely right. And the measurer said ‘right, that’s non-compliant and you’ve got to change that.’ It was all down to an interpretation of openings in sails and what is an opening and what isn’t. We got it wrong. That’s our bad and we feel fine about that. What we certainly don’t want to get into is a game with them when we feel like we’ve got to do the same with them, to put them in the same position as we are in. Starting going over every millimeter of their boat trying to find things that we think are non-complaint – something that won’t help their performance but might enable us to nick a race. I’m not saying they are playing that game. They are very respectable guys and their complaint on us was fine, it was very legitimate. We weren’t sailing with something in the World Series that they saw on the first day of the round robin series and made a complaint and it was all fine. It would be nice to take that out of it a little bit I think, but that’s not our decision.
Finally Matt, you were there in Bermuda as part of the sailing team. How important was that Cup experience for what was then Ben Ainslie Racing in informing what has happened so far with this campaign?
Oh, Bermuda has been hugely important. We were able to change the team a fair bit after that. There are a lot of new faces here. But putting people in the right places, especially now with this foiling generation, it is a very different campaign. In the old days we were all a bit guilty of it – all the teams that were in Bermuda – all apart from the Kiwis last time. We were still fixed on that idea of incremental gains from testing on the water – trying to sail two boats. But it was a waste of time, a complete waste of time. All the work had to be done on the computer and actually what you had to do was just design the fastest boat you could and then figure out how you are going to sail the thing. And that is still kind of the case now. It sounds easy doesn’t it. But before, like here and in Valencia, it was just about hours on the water – two boats going upwind for two hours and downwind for two hours, changing this on one boat and changing that, and testing, testing, testing. It’s not about that any more. It’s completely different. And there’s a lot less sailors and a lot more designers. We have so many designers now – it’s a very different game.