Two more contrasting styles in match racing you could not have hoped to see today. With the wind blowing off the city for the opening matches of the Louis Vuitton Cup Semi Finals, the fluky, shifty conditions made it a tough call as to whether afterguards should be chasing the best breeze or defending position on the race course.
Luna Rossa and BMW Oracle Racing seemed to favour the former – chasing the breeze at the expense of tactical positioning – while Emirates Team New Zealand never allowed Desafio Espanol room to breathe. The Kiwis were all over the Spanish like a rash, and while it never meant Dean Barker could put any sort of comfortable distance between him and Karol Jablonski, at least it meant he won the race.
The Italians and Americans, on the other hand, were playing a much faster and looser game, rolling the dice for a six and hoping for the best. Luna Rossa tactician Torben Grael is notorious for going for the big gamble, and quite often makes it pay.
When you’re the perceived underdog, as Luna Rossa are considered to be, it makes even more sense to break away from your opponent. The more separation you can create from your superior rival, the less significant any differences between boatspeed and boathandling become.
Which begs the question why the BMW Oracle afterguard were playing the same game of rolling for a six. USA 98 is considered to be one of the fastest – if not the fastest – boat among the challengers, and no one can match the slick crew work of the BMW Oracle crew.
So, why didn’t they do as the Kiwis did, and keep it tight on their opposition? Peter Isler commented at the press conference after racing: “The one thing that was clear was it was a very shifty day, and you had to try to connect the dots with the puffs. It looked like a day where you had to throw away some of your classic match racing tactics and keep a more open mind.”
The American team put their faith in the right, and it didn’t pay off, as they trailed Italy by 52 seconds at the top mark, an immense delta at this level. However, when Torben Grael took Luna Rossa back to the centre of the track downwind, it opened the door for USA 98 to charge down the right in a big puff of breeze, and suddenly that 400 metre deficit was down to zero again.
We were back into a full-on match race as Dickson tried to bully James Spithill out of his approach to the left-hand gate, but the Italians showed some good high-pressure boathandling to hold their nerve and protect the left-hand exit while Dickson made a dive for the right. At this point tactician Gavin Brady could have taken the fight back to the Italians with an early tack, but instead the Americans plugged on right and the Italians went left again. Within a matter of minutes the Italians had extended the gain line to 400 metres, and this time they held the lead comfortably to the finish.
Isler said the crucial moment came at the leeward gate when the Italians successfully defended the favoured left-hand mark. “That engineered a split that you don’t want to happen on a day like today. Had we gone back over immediately we’d have been four boatlengths behind. How would it have played out then? A bit more of a dogfight maybe?” Yes, it probably would have been, and with the great benefit of hindsight, BMW Oracle would have stood a much better chance of beating Luna Rossa.
The pressure must be beginning to tell on the American camp. After all, this is not a one-off. BMW Oracle could have played a tighter match to the Kiwis last Wednesday in the final decisive match of the Round Robins. By opting for a big split they lost out to Emirates Team New Zealand then, and they have done it again today against Italy.
In shifty conditions it’s a tough call knowing how to juggle priorities between best breeze and best tactical position. However, for a team that's so well equipped for close quarters combat, it’s surprising to see BMW Oracle try to fight their battles with inaccurate long-range weapons rather than getting stuck in to some hand-to-hand fighting. It will be interesting to see if Dickson, Brady and Isler decide to fix bayonets next time.