“You can’t win with a slow boat,” they say.
Or, there’s the corollary: “The fastest boat always wins.”
This truism has been repeated ad nauseum through the Prada Cup Challenger Series and the crew of Ineos Team UK felt the full brunt of this reality as they tried and failed to advance to the 36th America’s Cup over the weekend in Auckland. Britannia, uniquely bustled as she was, was simply the wrong package for the wind she was dealt.
In the end, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team in their curvy black missile had the faster package, particularly at the excruciating basement of the racing wind range in which all the races were sailed. Day by day, the sailing team molded itself into a formidable and cohesive unit that now seems almost mechanical and robotic on the open racecourse.
Cool and calm, like Spithill. Calculated and fiery like Bruni: that’s how they roll, and they roll they did through the Challenger fleet.
Of course, there is that other truism to consider, especially with the AC75: it’s easy to control the game and look slick when you’re ahead, especially if you have the quicker vessel. For Prada co-helmsmen Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni, it was easier than they made it out to be. Once they got their software sorted and streamlined their on-the-fly play calling, they were unbeatable. Once they got a big jump, they promptly shifted to patient and calculated boathandling, loose covers, and—as Spithill likes to say—keeping their foot to the throat of their competitor.
“All good, boys,” Spithill would say.
“We’re strong,” is how Bruni would put it.
Misery was the final day for Ineos Team UK. They had to know they were outgunned, and they would eventually have to try something special in both races of Race Day 4 of the Prada Cup Challenger Series Final. The 11-man squad of Luna Rossa sauntered in with five wins on the scoreboard and needed only two more to put a hard stop to the show. The wind-strength was in their wheelhouse and they knew Ineos’ Hail Mary would be to take the sailing gloves off in the pre-start. If Ainslie could get his boat across the line with a gigantic lead, they’d have a chance. If not, it was over.
As expected, Ainslie tried and failed to get a piece of Spithill in the first start of the day. When that failed, it was straight to Plan B—a clean start at the port end of the line. Having the Italians planted right on their hip wasn’t enough. With both boats simultaneously tacking at the left-side boundary, the scene was reminiscent of Luna Rossa’s dismissal of American Magic in the exact same scenario in the Semifinals. Port-side helmsman Francesco Bruni crept higher and higher until Ainslie could stand no more in Luna Rossa’s dirty air. The moment Britannia was flicked back to the middle of the racecourse, they were done and dusted. Ainslie’s onboard interview with NBCSport’s commentary team afterwards told the story of day—and pretty much the entire series.
“They’re going about 2 knots faster,” Ainslie said, dejected. “Pretty hard to race against that. We’ve been trying everything we can to get on top of it, but clearly, we can’t. Clearly an even start is not going to cut it.”
With elimination staring Ainslie and his teammates on Britannia square in the face, the reputed hard-fighting skipper knew there was only way to play in the following and final start. Entering on starboard, he jibed to port on top of Luna Rossa, which had port entry—just like they’d rehearsed in the simulator. “Anything can happen here, boys” Ainslie was overheard telling the crew as Luna Rossa appeared in his sightline. He must have sensed Spithill would be coming after him. In a high-speed heart beat or two, Ainslie jibed back to starboard and onto their final approach to the port end of the line. Spithill was hovering in Ainslie’s rear-view mirror, taunting and gunning for a hook.
They managed to shake Spithill’s advances and tack to escape being pushed across the line.
With Luna Rossa instead picking up an OCS penalty.
This surely could be the break Ainslie needed, but the drop-back penalty was a mere minor nuisance for Luna Rossa. The penalty evaporated quickly. The two teams split sides with Ineos returning from the right and winning the first cross by less than a boatlength. A mere dip for Bruni.
As each boat then came back from its respective second boundary, however, Ainslie didn’t like what he saw as he left the starboard wheel to cross the boat.
“He’s ahead already,” he said over his headset. “Ridiculous.”
Seconds later, as they meet in the middle of the course once more, Ainslie’s all-star tactician Giles Scott, delivered the bad news: “No duck.” Ainslie shook his head and cursed. And the silly and final game of follow-the-leader resumed again.
Once the Italians crossed the finish line to put a definitive end to the Prada Cup Challenger Series, the Mumm Champagne showers soon followed and grinder Shannon Falcone passed around his mystery bottle for all who wished to take a pull—most likely Antiguan Rum.
Luna Rossa was the faster, sharper and better team of the Challenger fleet, as the scoreboard notes: 11 wins in 12 races. There shall be no doubt. They were rarely behind, and if they were, it wasn’t for long, or by much at all.
As the shore team hooked Luna Rossa to its tow back to the base, to the party, to the press conference, to the shed and to a well-earned day off for the grinders, however, the Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, which had been training on the outskirts of the racecourse, took advantage of the empty course and the departing spectator crowd to sail past their challenger, as if to wave and welcome them to the Match, to give them a looksie at what’s to come on March 6. Only Luna Rossa’s spies truly know what the Kiwis have to offer and the Kiwis most definitely know what the Italians have on the table—with more to come, of course.
These are two very different boats and two very different programs, sporting with a singular purpose: to win the Cup. The men in the silver suits have earned their appearance in this 36th edition. Jimmy’s back in the game and he’s got his buddy Bruni at his side. He’s ready to avenge the humiliation of Bermuda at the hands of one Peter Burling.
It’s a match made in Heaven.