There was a clear consensus of opinion at the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series skippers press conference earlier this week that Sir Ben Ainslie will win this opening skirmish of the AC45Fs. So it came as no surprise when he swept to victory in the first race in Portsmouth.
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He and his team have been training on the Solent since the start of the year, finding the way round their foils in waters that are deemed tricky the world over. They have spent hours and hours training, in all winds and conditions.
Ainslie is recognised as one of the best sailors in the world, with four Olympic gold medals and a formidable reputation as a fearless, ruthless and utterly uncompromising opponent. Make him angry at your peril. He uses anger to channel uncontrollable competitive urges which makes for some ugly encounters. He wins everything. Doesn’t he?
Well no actually. Not everything, Multihulls have never been his strong point. Give him a Laser or a Finn and he is the champion of the world but when he tried his hand at high performance catamaran sailing in the Extreme Sailing Series last year, he struggled.
After eight events throughout the year, he finished fifth in a field of 11 which surprised many though it was quite a bit better than Franck Cammas from France who finished in 10th, which was even more of a surprise. Mastering multihulls was clearly going to take time.
Two skippers who also tried their hand at Extreme 40 racing but enjoyed immediate success are lining up against Ainslie today in the opening race of the ACWS. Tom Slingsby who stood next to him in the afterguard of Oracle Team USA when they won the America’s Cup in 2013 followed in Ainslie’s footsteps as Laser World Champion and Olympic gold medallist.
Many consider him a more naturally gifted sailor than Ainslie who can add speed to any boat at a drop of a hat. Focus, dedication and determination he has in spades though few can match Ainslie who has more steel than Japan and USA put together.
Pete Burling of ETNZ has a 49er Olympic gold medal under his belt, which is the qualification teams are looking for when hunting down new crew. And when Burling took over from Dean Barker in the Extreme 40s, the Kiwis started appearing on the podium. Only 23 years old, he is regarded as a rare and special talent with a big future in America’s Cup racing.
Burling is Ainslie’s biggest threat though the effect of the upheaval in Emirates Team New Zealand since Barker’s services were dispensed with earlier this year has had an unknown effect on the team so their performances are under close scrutiny.
Slingsby will be first in line to take over from Spithill if Oracle underperform in the ACWS. Spithill has two America’s Cup trophies to his name but taking the cynics view, the 2010 Cup was a Deed of Gift match against Alinghi which was a muscle flexing exercise between two giant egos and their massive machines and 2013 was a triumph for Larry Ellison’s bottomless pockets which were around $250 million lighter by the time he had forked out for the foiling technology needed to play catch up with the Kiwis.
This AC cycle will be more of a test of Spithill’s skills and he too will come under close scrutiny which will make the next two years utterly absorbing and quite compelling. It is impossible to think Burling and Slingsby and Ainslie will still be mates by the end of it.