The America's Cup trials start two weeks from Friday on Bermuda's Great Sound, and the man in charge of sailing's marquee regatta doesn't believe there's an overwhelming favorite, not even two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA.
Russell Coutts has been watching practice races between the 50-foot, foiling catamarans. He said he's impressed with Oracle Team USA, Artemis Racing of Sweden, SoftBank Team Japan and Emirates Team New Zealand, the hard-luck loser in the 2013 America's Cup on San Francisco Bay.
"I actually don't think there is a clear favorite right now," Coutts, CEO of the America's Cup Event Authority, said in a recent phone interview. "I think it's really close between these teams."
Coutts won the America's Cup three times as a skipper " for two different countries " and twice as CEO of Oracle Team USA, which is owned by Larry Ellison, one of the world's richest men. Coutts remains CEO of Oracle Team USA, although he said his role is limited to overseeing the team's budget while general manager Grant Simmer and skipper Jimmy Spithill run the day-to-day operations.
Oracle has capsized twice in the last month, most recently on Wednesday . No one's been injured and the team said damage was minimal.
The other two teams in the trials are Britain's Land Rover BAR, led by Sir Ben Ainslie, the most decorated Olympic sailor in history, and Groupama Team France.
Coutts said that while Land Rover BAR is among the best at maneuvering the fast, wing-sailed catamarans, it has a speed problem.
"The French got in late, so it might be hard for them to get up to the level the other top teams are," Coutts said. "But I would not rule BAR out. They've certainly been sailing their boat at the same level as the other four top teams. If they can get their speed together, they will be a force to be reckoned with, no doubt about that."
Coutts pointed to a recent day of practice racing, when Oracle beat Japan, New Zealand beat Artemis, Oracle beat Land Rover BAR, Land Rover BAR beat France, Japan beat New Zealand, New Zealand beat France and Japan beat Oracle.
Coutts said the conditions were within a knot of wind for all the races.
"They can all beat each other and it depends on how well they sail," Coutts said. "I couldn't say that one team's standing out as being stronger than the others. The outcome is going to be very unpredictable, which of course, in essence, is what we need."
More practice racing is scheduled next week.
Racing is much more compressed this America's Cup. The first of two round-robins begins May 26, in which one challenger will be eliminated, followed by the challenger semifinals and finals. In a departure from America's Cup tradition, Oracle will sail against challengers in the round-robins even though it is guaranteed a spot in the America's Cup match beginning June 17.
Has Oracle been sandbagging in the practice racing?
"I don't think sandbagging, but I know that all the teams have been bringing on new equipment," Coutts said. "They're always developing and do have new things in the pipeline. I think this is real for them in terms of preparation, for the defender, and real for other teams, too. Have we seen everything for all the teams? Of course not. Some things are being held back, no doubt, for the racing."
SoftBank Team Japan has had access to Oracle's design package as part of a deal to help the new team get into the competition in a cost-effective way.
Oracle would seem to be the heavy favorite based simply on Ellison's deep pockets and technology connections.
Coutts said he doesn't see it that way.
"Jimmy Spithill may be the best out there right now at leading a team. But the other teams have got strong personalities. Wow," Coutts said.
Among them are Ainslie, who in 2013 helped Oracle mount one of the greatest comebacks in sports in rallying from 8-1 down to Team New Zealand to win the final eight races and retain the Auld Mug.
Coutts, a New Zealander, considers Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling one of the world's best sailors. Burling is coming off a gold medal performance in the 49er class at the Rio Olympics with Blair Tuke, himself an ETNZ crewman. They won the silver medal in 2012.
The challenger has won three of the last six America's Cup regattas. Coincidentally, Coutts had a hand in all three " as skipper of Team New Zealand against Dennis Conner in 1995, as skipper of Alinghi of Switzerland in 2003 against Team New Zealand, and as CEO of Oracle Team USA in 2010 against Alinghi.
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