America's Cup: Speed kings not about to give everything away

By Dana Johannsen

Team NZ will keep some of their gains under the hatch as next round begins

They've reportedly made some big breakthroughs in training over the past two weeks, but don't expect Team New Zealand to reveal their full hand just yet.

The final elimination of the Louis Vuitton Cup starts tomorrow, with Emirates Team New Zealand taking on Luna Rossa in a best-of-13 series for the right to challenge Oracle Team USA for the America's Cup.

Now that they've reached the knock-out rounds and the stakes are raised, Team NZ must up the ante. But given Oracle have access to all their telemetry data from the race course it is likely Dean Barker will opt to keep a few tricks up his sleeve.

Team NZ have appeared nervous about the performance of Oracle at times during the regatta, but over the past week there has been a notable change in their demeanour - suddenly they seem very pleased with themselves.

Barker yesterday confirmed his team have made significant speed gains in training over the past two weeks since modifications were made to their boat.

"We set a new top speed record the other day at the end of practice," said Barker.

"I can't say what it is, but almost every day the boat's going faster and faster and becoming more efficient. There are pretty good smiles coming off the boat."

Talk Team NZ have made a significant breakthrough on the water was further fuelled yesterday when pictures were posted on the America's Cup website, which appeared to show the Kiwi team foiling upwind. The AC72's ability to hydrofoil has been the biggest design development of the 34th America's Cup. So much so, that design teams are focusing more on refining the underwater appendages than the 40m-tall wing sail that powers the speeding catamarans.

Hydrofoiling has enabled the teams to reach speeds of 45 knots, but the benefits of foiling upwind have been debated back and forth. One camp says it isn't worth it because too much VMG - velocity made good, the yacht's theoretical speed directly towards the mark - is lost. Another camp says it's worth it to crack the sheets a bit, put the bows down and get rumbling.

If Team New Zealand have found a way to efficiently foil upwind, it's unlikely they'll do so until the America's Cup finals. While a lot has been made about the improvement of Luna Rossa since the round robin stages, there remains a sense of inevitability that it will be a Team NZ v Oracle showdown in the final.

Luna Rossa have never taken a point off Team NZ, but Barker believes the short course format used in the finals series creates the potential for upsets. "Things are very different now compared to the round robins and semifinal," said Barker. "There's greater emphasis on the start and the first reach and getting out of Mark 1 in good shape. We've seen it's hard for the guy behind to gain enough leverage to really attack. If you can get around the leeward gate ahead you have a very good chance to shut things down."

The series is a best-of-13, meaning the first to score seven points will be the winner. Two five-leg races a day are planned, each race is expected to last 25 minutes, leaving a break of just 30 minutes between races.

Three areas where Team NZ have the edge

Development

Operating on an extremely truncated timeline in the build-up to this year's America's Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand have led the development in the new, highly complex AC72 class. Team NZ and Luna Rossa essentially started from the same point, with the Kiwi team selling their rivals their design package.

But Team NZ had the advantage of building a second boat after six months of testing their first AC72, allowing them to take what they learned and refine their design for boat two. As a result Team NZ gained a significant speed advantage over Luna Rossa, who looked sluggish compared with the Kiwi boat during the round robin.

Since then Team NZ have made further modifications to their boat, including improving their hydraulic systems and aerodynamic package. Luna Rossa have also made a few alterations since the round robin and believe their boat is much faster, particularly upwind where they were well off the pace of Team NZ. But the Italians have been playing catch-up from the start and they acknowledge Aotearoa is simply a better boat.

Crew-work

Well-drilled by sailing coaches Rod Davis and Joey Allen, the Team NZ crew are a slick outfit. During the round robin their competitors unashamedly studied the choreography of Team NZ's crew-work, as the Kiwi team impressed with their execution on their manoeuvres. Given the unprecedented speeds the high-powered AC72 catamarans are capable of, it is thought the key to success in the class will be minimising the speed loss during tacks and gybes.

Precision crew work on their manoeuvres when foiling downwind is particularly important, with teams able to gain a significant advantage if they are able to foil through their gybes. Team NZ have so far proved the masters of this difficult manoeuvre, consistently pulling off foil-to-foil gybes during the early racing.

During their break in racing since wrapping up the round robin series, Team NZ have spent more time perfecting their crew-work, spending long days out on the water practising manoeuvres.

Experience at the helm

The most experienced America's Cup skipper at the regatta, Dean Barker is a class above Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper. It was all too easy for Barker during the round robin stages as he dominated the pre-starts, outwitting Draper each time.

The 35-year-old Brit also struggled with his starts in their semifinal match-ups with Artemis - winning just one of the four starts against Nathan Outteridge - and looks a little out of his depth at this level. Barker, meanwhile, has had more time sailing the AC72s than any one else and is high on confidence. It is hard to see Draper getting the better of Barker in this series.

- NZ Herald

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