The Royal Yacht Squadron is arguably the most prestigious yacht club in the world. Its clubhouse in Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight, designed by Sir Thomas Croft, is full of mahogany furniture and old paintings and some of its members look as if they might just have been around when the inaugural America's Cup – then just a race around the Island for a 100-sovereign Cup – was held way back in 1851.

One can only imagine their faces when Sir Jim Ratcliffe – the son of a joiner and an office worker, who grew up on a council estate in Failsworth, Greater Manchester, and is now Britain's wealthiest man with a fortune estimated at somewhere north of £21 billion – was inaugurated into the club during Cowes Week last month.

Ratcliffe, who has taken over Sir Ben Ainslie's Portsmouth-based America's Cup team and renamed it Ineos Team UK after his petro-chemicals company, performed a "fly-by" on a GC32 foiling catamaran. "It was a little like that scene in Top Gun," he recalls, chuckling. "Rattling tea cups in the control tower. The members were all looking a bit alarmed as we flew past them at about 35 knots, on the foil."

The hope, at least from a British perspective, is that it is Ainslie's rivals who have been rattled by the arrival of someone with serious, serious wealth.

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This is a man who reportedly had a bid of £2 billion for Chelsea Football Club knocked back by Roman Abramovich this summer; whose decision to relocate to Monaco this year was front-page news.

Ratcliffe is the 29th-richest man in the world. His arrival on the scene was not without controversy in the sport of sailing. Ineos is one of the largest plastics manufacturers in the world. For Ainslie, who built his team on a ticket of sustainability, getting into bed with an industrialist was a reputational risk. And when the takeover was announced back in April, he copped a fair amount of flak.

He is unapologetic. Both he and Ratcliffe are at pains to stress that they are committed to finding ways to tackle the issue of plastics polluting the ocean, although they are still "investigating how we go about doing that". Ratcliffe stresses there are no "quick fixes".

"We are looking at producing biodegradable plastic, at more efficient recycling," he says. "We have had a conversation about building a flotilla of 20 boats and fishing plastics out of the water ourselves. But it's not easy."

Ainslie, meanwhile, says he was woefully "ignorant" of the scale of the challenge before he met Ratcliffe, and now sees the problem as a "bigger challenge than ever" and one he will not ignore.

The five-time Olympic champion is also keen to point out that Ineos will continue to support the 1851 Trust, the charitable arm of the team which aims to inspire and engage a new generation through sailing and the marine industry, focusing in particular on Stem subjects [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths].

Sir Ben Ainslie team principal and helmsman of the British Americas Cup team INEOS Team UK (R) talks with Jim Ratcliffe founder and chairman of INEOS. Photo / Getty
Sir Ben Ainslie team principal and helmsman of the British Americas Cup team INEOS Team UK (R) talks with Jim Ratcliffe founder and chairman of INEOS. Photo / Getty

Above all, Ainslie is a ruthless winner. He knew that Ratcliffe's £110 million investment was his only realistic chance of winning the oldest international trophy in sport. Teams competing for the 36th America's Cup in Auckland in 2021 will be allowed to build two 75ft foiling monohull boats – and only those teams with a budget of over £100 million will be in the mix.

"It's been fantastic," he says of Ratcliffe's arrival, adding that he is given complete autonomy to manage the team. "It was clear where the America's Cup was going, what with the [financial] challenge involved in building two boats. It was clear that Jim and I shared the same passion for winning it.

"We built up a great team last time but [continuing as it was] just wasn't realistic when confronted with the challenges we were facing this time. It was a necessary change."

The deal happened quickly. The pair met in a pub in March – set up by a "mischievous" mutual friend who "knew what he was doing", according to Ratcliffe. They spoke about the Cup, and Ratcliffe was quickly hooked.

"The fact that it is the oldest sporting trophy in the world, and we are the finest sailors in the world … and yet it is something missing in our trophy cabinet," says the 65 year-old when asked why he is doing this.

"Ben won all those Olympic medals and GB sailors rule the waves. We've got this huge coastline. And yet we can't win this competition we started ourselves back in 1851.

"Even at that first one we had 11 boats and America only came over with one and they took it. And we've been trying for the last 167 years to get it back.

"I only went in there [to the pub] for a gin and tonic," he adds, laughing. "It was the most expensive gin and tonic of my life."

Ratcliffe, who says he is not looking for any return on his investment beyond the challenge of winning back the Cup for Britain ("It's not about branding Ineos or making Ineos any more well known. That is of no relevance to us really") only had two stipulations when he agreed to fund Ainslie's team.

The first was that Ainslie dropped all of his existing partners, most notably Jaguar Land Rover who had already committed to 2021. That was, admits Ainslie, a "difficult conversation". And secondly that the campaign was fully funded. "Because then there are no excuses," Ratcliffe says. "What's the point in partially funding and then maybe having another go the next time? Now we have to deliver."

No pressure then. With a £110 million budget, zero commercial distractions, a well-established team, and a scale model test boat already on the water – the first of the four teams to launch – is there any part of Ainslie which is nervous about failing? "Yes," he admits. "But that's what you want. When you're out racing you want to win. And we're in a much better place to do that. There will always be pressure. That's sport. That's why you do it."