Auckland (AFP) There will be no room for emotion when British sailing legend Ben Ainslie confronts former teammate Jimmy Spithill in the final of the America’s Cup challenger series this weekend.
Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK is competing against Spithill’s Luna Rossa of Italy in the best-of-13 final in Auckland harbour starting on Saturday.
“I’ve had a great relationship with Jimmy over many years now, both racing with one another and against one another,” said Ainslie ahead of the final.
“He’s a great competitor, a great sailor. There’s a healthy respect between us and, for whatever reason, whenever we race against one another it normally ends up being pretty exciting.”
The winner of the challenger series, also known as the Prada Cup, earns the right to race defending champion Team New Zealand next month for the America’s Cup, yachting’s most prestigious trophy.
The loser goes home, with a multi-million dollar campaign involving years of planning, design work and training coming to an abrupt end.
“Neither team will be underestimating each other and we’ll be putting the hammer down,” said Spithill, the combative Australian who is co-helmsman on Luna Rossa.
Spithill and Ainslie engineered one of the greatest ever sporting comebacks when they were on the same side with Oracle Team USA at the 2013 America’s Cup regatta in San Francisco.
At 8-1 down, they stormed back to claim an 8-9 victory against Team New Zealand and retain the Auld Mug.
Ainslie, the most successful sailor in Olympic history, has shown a similar never-say-die spirit after critics wrote off his boat as a “lame duck” early in the current regatta.
The yacht bombed in pre-Christmas warm-ups, unable to use the hi-tech foiling arms that allow the 23-metre (75-foot) monohulls to “fly” above the water.
But Ainslie staged another stunning turnaround as INEOS dominated the Prada Cup round robin, reaching speeds of more than 50 knots as it made the final with a 5-0 win streak.
Luna Rossa then earned its spot in the decider with a 4-0 semi-final win over American Magic, which never recovered from a dramatic capsize early in its campaign.
– ‘Playing catch-up’ –
Spithill said his crew were battle hardened after their races against the Americans.
“The pressure we had to face internally, the entire team after that series going into this sort of sudden death, that’s about as good a preparation as you can get,” he said.
In contrast, Ainslie said his team appreciated having time to themselves after qualifying early so they could work on improving their boat.
“Throughout this whole campaign we’ve been playing catch-up,” he said.
“So having the opportunity to actually get a bit of that time back, albeit only a week, we felt was important in terms of being able to make the changes we wanted to do the boat.”
While Ainslie praised INEOS’ increased boat speed, he was concerned it remained vulnerable to Luna Rossa in light winds.
Ainslie has previously said he would willingly trade his Olympic medals — four gold and one silver — to return the America’s Cup to Britain after a 170-year absence.
His quest for the trophy has been bankrolled by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe to the tune of 110 million pounds (US$150 million).
Ratcliffe, who is in Auckland to watch the regatta, was enthusiastic about the spectacle offered by the foiling yachts when talking to The Times newspaper this week.
“A boat the height of a 10-storey building sailing on a foil the size of a coffee table at nearly 100kmh, it’s pretty extraordinary without hurting anybody,” he said.
Courtesy: France 24