A fantastic day’s racing in Valencia to conclude a Round Robin that at one time seemed like it would never end. So what did we learn from today? Well, for starters, that none of the helmsmen in the leading teams are infallible.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that Chris Dickson, with all the other responsibilities he faces as head of BMW Oracle Racing, remains one of the best starters in the business. He has looked very consistent in the pre-starts. In the big decider match to determine who would win Round Robin One, he had Dean Barker and the Kiwis wrapped up like a kipper. Dickson saw a moment to close the Kiwis out of the start and put BMW Oracle at a massive early advantage.
However, Dickson got greedy and in his eagerness to post a ‘kill’, lost control of the situation and let Barker off the hook as NZL 92 sailed off to an unexpected early lead. However, the fact that the Kiwis ended up winning the start shouldn’t distract from the fact that in both pre-starts today the New Zealand boat looked in all sorts of trouble.
Magnus Holmberg can take credit for winning the pre-start against Barker in the match earlier this afternoon, although it was another case of the Kiwis wriggling out of trouble and finding better breeze on the right. Barker has been taking a lot of flak in some corners of the media for his inconsistent starting performances and rightly so, on the strength of what we saw today.
James Spithill, helmsman of Luna Rossa, is seen by some as the Russell Coutts of the next generation. Widely acknowledged as one of the most aggressive but controlled match racers in the game, we didn’t see the best of the young Aussie in the Italian team’s starts against Mascalzone Latino and Desafio Espanol – even if Luna Rossa ended up as the only team to win both matches today. Again, when analysing starting performance, Luna Rossa's results flatter to deceive.
Arguably the star of the pre-starts has been Jes Gram Hansen, whose roughing up of Luna Rossa today put Mascalzone Latino at a significant advantage on the first beat. It was unfortunate that Mascalzone could not hold on to that lead until the end of the race, but that is no reflection on the up-and-coming Dane’s starting ability.
It seemed that in today’s fickle and unpredictable conditions, winning or losing the start had little bearing on the eventual outcome of the race. There were numerous passing opportunities, and so it was a big day for the windspotters at the top of the rigs, sniffing out the best puffs of breeze wafting down the track. Desafio’s second helmsman, Jesper Radich, made the comment during his guest spot on America’s Cup Radio today that 90% of teams who lead round the first mark go on to win the match. But in these unstable conditions, raw statistics appear to count for little.
The unsteady breezes have certainly added to the excitement of Round Robin One, but have made it less easy to discern any real boatspeed differences between the top teams. Desafio Espanol won a drag race off the start line with BMW Oracle and beat the American boat fair and square, so there appears little wrong with the Spanish package. The Italian teams on the other hand seem more reliant on some decent breeze to get their boats up to race-winning pace.
Top Italian team Luna Rossa hasn’t looked entirely convincing and yet at the end of this intriguing first phase they lie second in the rankings. So, not so bad after all, perhaps? Along with Luna Rossa, the Spanish are the team in the ascendant. Confidence will be blooming, while in the New Zealand camp there will be a feeling that things just aren’t clicking. Before this season, most pundits would have put the Kiwis just ahead of BMW Oracle as the favourite to race Alinghi later this summer. After Round Robin One, however, the Challenger of Record is looking the most likely to front up against the Swiss.
The big teams are all facing a relatively straightforward start to Round Robin Two, with the exception of Emirates Team New Zealand’s draw against Mascalzone Latino, who claimed a Kiwi scalp in Round Robin One. It will be vital for Kiwi confidence to get the better of Jes Gram Hansen and the Latin Rascals at the start. If not, then the pressure will only continue to build on the New Zealanders.