America's Cup: Italians see error as only path to victory

By Paul Lewis

Competitive but slower boat needs to win a start from Team NZ

Team New Zealand 4
Luna Rossa 1

To stop Team New Zealand from winning the Louis Vuitton Cup, Luna Rossa will have to be "200 per cent perfect and they [Emirates Team NZ] need to make a mistake".

Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena is one of the most pleasant people at this 34th America's Cup - sturdily built, with that northern Italian fairness of complexion, blue eyes, a ready sense of humour and a strong sense of reality.

He wasn't laughing too much after two emphatic defeats by Team NZ yesterday - but was realistic about losses which mean the New Zealanders are just three races away from retaining the Louis Vuitton Cup they won in 2007 at the America's Cup in Valencia.

"We believe, and I think everyone understands, that we have a slower boat and to beat them now, we need to be 200 per cent perfect and they need to make a mistake," he said.

"We were more competitive today and I think we have done what we set out to do. We started a year and a half behind everyone and here we are in the final.

"Team NZ are more competitive. They had a two-boat programme and we have only a first-generation boat. That is not making an excuse but we would be happy to sail with a second boat from a performance point of view."

Sirena said the best way of upsetting Team NZ on the course was to beat them to the mark on the first reach - the short leg to which the boats race after the start before heading away on the downwind leg. Then he added an Italian shrug. "But then, of course, the problem there is upwind ...".

That's it in a nutshell. The Italians are competitive downwind but have lost five out of five pre-starts with Dean Barker either clearly winning the start or nosing Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper out. The start is vital as it is a sprint to the first mark; the pattern of the racing has been that he who is second struggles to come from behind.

Yesterday, in the more closely contested second race, the battle for the first mark was intense. For most of the way, the two 72-foot catamarans nudged at each other like the F1-style racers the advance publicity for this regatta suggested (before reality set in). Somehow Team NZ found a little extra, rounded the mark 4s clear, extending that to 18s downwind before stitching up the contest in the third, upwind leg. They won the race by 1m 28s.

Team NZ tactician Ray Davies said: "In this type of race, whoever makes the least amount of mistakes will win. You have also got to come off the [start] line cleanly. The first one round the first mark will usually win; the other will be in second place.

"We have been really working hard on that first reach. It's boat speed, but crew work too."

The other strong pointers to a New Zealand victory in the Louis Vuitton were their speed upwind - they clearly outpaced the Italians and pulled off some upwind foiling again - and their ability and acceleration in lighter airs.

These were some of the weakest breezes - only 12-14 knots, gusting to 18 on occasion - in the regatta so far. Most thought the Italians stood a better chance against Team NZ in such conditions with a boat supposedly geared more for stronger winds. That proved vastly wrong.

In the first race, the Italians did not sail as well as in the later contest. They strayed over the boundary, earning a go-slow penalty that they appeared not to notice (meaning the penalty extended to a longer go-slow time). They lost by 2m 18s.

But in the second race they sailed as well as anyone could expect. They produced a near-perfect foiling gybe to cut a 300m deficit down to 70m but the Kiwis pulled away with their upwind speed. The Italians hung in there, initiating a tacking duel which put the New Zealanders on their mettle.

It was the sort of racing the Kiwis need - forcing them to operate at maximum revs, as it were, rather than winning in a canter. That is the advantage many think will benefit holders Oracle Team USA - their two boats joust against each other in close racing every day, persuading many observers that they are closing the gap with Team NZ.

"It was good - we need to be pushed hard at this point," said Davies. "They did a really good gybe and made it hard for us and we were pleased how the boys responded and stretched out again."

There is a reserve day today, with one race scheduled for tomorrow (NZT) and two on Sunday. By which time - unless the Italians find that 200 per cent or equipment failure strikes again - matters could be decided.

- NZ Herald

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