Reports of a significantly faster boat and the knowledge of home waters meant Team New Zealand went into the 36th America's Cup Match against Luna Rossa as overwhelming favourites. Yet, despite the perceived advantage Team New Zealand admitted to some concerns about their Cup prospects midway through the series. Michael Burgess explains why.
Team New Zealand admit there were real concerns about their prospects midway through the America's Cup series, with Luna Rossa "sailing the wheels off their boat".
While the final 7-3 scoreline appears emphatic, it doesn't fully reflect the drama that played out behind the scenes, especially for the defenders.
They were never complacent heading into the match, but were confident of a decisive speed edge, as helmsman Peter Burling admitted the day before the series.
But initially, that didn't really play out. The gulf in velocity expected by most pundits wasn't there – instead it was close combat.
Amid massive anticipation and hype, the first race got underway on Wednesday March 10 and Team New Zealand settled a nation's nerves with a win.
The 31-second margin was comfortable, but not comprehensive and any hopes of a repeat of the procession of 2000 (5-0 over Prada) were dashed 30 minutes later.
Te Rehutai was forced to tack before the start line, giving Luna Rossa an early advantage. They led by 13 seconds at the first mark and got stronger from there. The sight of Luna Rossa ahead by more than 400 metres on the fourth leg was one of the biggest surprises of the summer, as they squared the ledger at 1-1.
And worry beads around the country were magnified 48 hours later, as the challengers again won the start.
Information coming off Te Rehutai had grinders Steven Ferguson and Joe Sullivan clocked at 98 per cent of their maximum heart rates – as Team New Zealand worked hard to find a way back – but the final margin of 37 seconds was the biggest delta so far.
The defenders had lost consecutive races and television cameras captured the Team New Zealand afterguard in an extended meeting after that race, realising they had to buck the trend.
They did, but Burling's post-race words were telling.
"I don't feel like there is too much in it," he said. "It is going to be won by who sails the best."
Against all odds, the Italians were storming the castle. At 5pm last Saturday Luna Rossa led the series 3-2, after Team New Zealand came off their foils ahead of the start.
"I think a lot of people were quite surprised," reflected Luna Rossa co-helmsman Jimmy Spithill. "I felt like we were batting above our average. We just fought and pushed as hard as we could."
The underdogs had taken three of the four previous races. It wasn't panic stations, but there were some genuine worries.
"They were sailing the boat better and better and pulling off manoeuvres that we thought weren't quite possible early on," said Team New Zealand trimmer Glenn Ashby.
"The moding and learning that they did with their boat was pretty impressive and we knew we had to keep pushing hard for ourselves, to be able to match these guys, as they were on a pretty good roll of momentum.
"It was amazing yachting. You woke up every morning thinking 'what's the day going to bring?' Hats off to [Luna Rossa], [they] sailed the wheels off the boat."
With their lack of racing, Team New Zealand were struggling to get the best out of Te Rehutai, which was initially costly against the finely-tuned Italians.
"We had a rocket ship of a boat, but it took us a little while to work out the modes against [Luna Rossa]," said Ashby. "They probably worked out our modes maybe earlier than we did at times. They certainly used the strengths that they had with their whole team and their design and the way they sailed their boat. It was extremely difficult for us to get past them."
Watching on from the chase boat, sailing coach Ray Davies knew that tweaks had to be made. A member of the afterguard in 2007 in Valencia and 2013 in San Francisco, Davies recognised how crucial momentum could be.
"The amount of times we talked about dirty air and gas over the last week was pretty phenomenal," reflected Davies. "It is pretty painful in these boats when you get affected by that.
"There was an advantage to do the Challenger series and the more racing you did, the better you got. That was very clear with our team, the more racing we did the better we got.
"Not just the match racing side of it but understanding the boat every single day. The intensity that would go into their debriefs, just to try and get a second or a half a second better through a manoeuvre, was pretty phenomenal."
Davies worked with the afterguard (Burling, Blair Tuke, Ashby, Josh Junior and Andy Maloney) to refine their pre-starts, which steadily improved against the twin threats of Francesco Bruni and Spithill, culminating in Wednesday's near-perfect opening sequence.
"We had to learn some different pre-start techniques, than what maybe we had trained for," revealed Tuke. "But that is the strength of the team and the group, learning to adapt to a new situation."
From his office in their Halsey Street base, Team New Zealand head designer Dan Bernasconi was stunned at the precision and pace that Luna Rossa had achieved with their interpretation of the new AC75 design class.
"It produced racing beyond our expectations," said Bernasconi. "There's always a risk when you go to a completely new class, that in the America's Cup that it would be a bit one-sided. That was something that we worried about, that somebody would get it right and somebody would get it wrong, and the racing wouldn't be there.
"But [it was] an absolute amazing effort from the Luna Rossa design team… it was so close. Full credit to them for giving us a huge battle. We've got a strong team of 35 designers and we've been working on this for three and a half years. To come from a blank sheet of paper and end up with two boats that are so amazingly close is really incredible."
The history books will show that Team New Zealand reeled off the last five races, three by significant margins, but that doesn't reflect the day-to-day drama.
At 3-3, the Italians led race seven until the third leg, when they elected not to cover and Burling grabbed "the last decent right-hand shift of the day" to achieve the first pass of the series.
If that was dramatic, race eight saw the nation collectively freeze, as Team New Zealand were marooned in the middle of the course, after a sharp gybe went wrong.
What followed will always be part of Kiwi sporting folklore, as the defenders retrieved a 2000m deficit after Luna Rossa stumbled off their foils late in the race.
The most memorable contest came at 5-4 on Tuesday and demonstrated how much the Team New Zealand crew had improved.
It was a stunner. Luna Rossa gained a narrow lead off the start and sailed a near-flawless race, constantly fending Te Rehutai off, who pursued like a panther.
The Italians were headed for victory, before a fateful decision not to cover, and some local knowledge helped Burling take advantage of a sudden gust, for a spectacular climax.
"I felt we left some race wins on the table," reflected Spithill. "I'm not saying that the outcome would have been any different. But my goal from early on was to try and just get one ahead, try and get in that psychological, mental side of things.
"We had an opportunity to do that, to square it up and get one ahead, and then you just don't know what's going on. It's sport and these guys [Team New Zealand] – man they have got the weight of a nation here. But at the end of the day, the better team in the better boat won."