The America's Cup is (unofficially) under way with the World Series and Christmas Race taking place in Auckland this week. Michael Burgess explains what the four-day event will look like - and what it means in the race for the Auld Mug.
How important is the World Series and Christmas Race?
It depends on your perspective. It's vital for Team New Zealand; their only chance to engage in official races with the three prospective challengers before the America's Cup match next March.
In January and February, the defenders will rely on in-house trialling and training, while Luna Rossa, American Magic and Ineos Team UK battle each other in the Prada Cup. So, in theory, the challengers can keep some powder dry for the Prada Cup. But it's unlikely there will be much "sandbagging".
Every team needs the confidence boost of some good performances, especially after some up and down form in the recent practice races. There will be a particular focus on Ineos Team UK, who have been hardly been sighted so far due to ongoing gear failure.
This event was supposed to be the third leg of the America's Cup World Series. There were regattas scheduled earlier this year for Italy (Sardinia) and the UK (Portsmouth), but they were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It makes this occasion extra special; Auckland will witness the first official races between AC75 yachts.
It's also the first opportunity for teams to gather intelligence about the relative performance differences across the fleet.
What about the racing format?
The first three days follow a double round-robin format, with four races each day. Each team will face their three opponents on two occasions. Sunday is finals day. The top-ranked team will face the fourth-best team in one semifinal, with the second- and third-placed syndicates facing off in the other. The winners will race in the Prada Christmas Cup decider, with the others in a playoff for third place.
Team New Zealand:
Peter Burling, Blair Tuke and Glenn Ashby
Burling continues to step up to every new challenge and has looked comfortable and competent on the helm of Te Rehutai since its recent launch. There is extra pressure and attention on home waters, but that doesn't seem to faze the focused 29-year-old.
Tuke seems to have an almost telepathic relationship with Burling, after more than a decade together on the water. The Northland-raised 31-year-old is flight controller.
Skipper and trimmer Ashby is often underrated, but not by anyone within the inner circle. The Australian is a foiling specialist and has been key to Team New Zealand's mastering of flight since 2012.
Jimmy Spithill, Francesco Bruni, Max Sirena
Helmsman Spithill has been involved in the last three America Cup matches (2010, 2013 and 2017) and his combination of X-factor, bloody-minded belief and tough mentality make him an important asset for the Italians.
Bruni is a three-time Olympian who is competing in his fifth Cup campaign. He shares the helming duties with Spithill, which the Italians hope will result in faster transitions.
Chief executive and skipper Sirena has been on two Cup-winning teams (2010 and 2017), as well as every Italian challenge since 2000.
Ineos Team UK:
Ben Ainslie, Giles Scott, Leigh McMillan and Grant Simmer
Ainslie is the biggest name in British sailing, with four Olympic gold medals on his impressive resume. He's also got Cup experience – he was Oracle's tactician in 2013 – but carries a heavy burden as the helmsman and face of the syndicate.
Scott competed against Ainslie in the Finn class, then had his own Olympic triumph in Rio in 2016. In Auckland, he will reprise his 2017 Bermuda role as Ainslie's tactician while Leigh McMillan is flight controller.
Chief executive Simmer is a Cup veteran. He has been part of 10 campaigns, more than anyone else present in Auckland, and has four wins (1983, 2003, 2007 and 2013).
Dean Barker, Terry Hutchinson
Helmsman Barker was with Team New Zealand for almost two decades and four campaigns, before helming the Japanese challenge in 2017. He was part of Team New Zealand's pioneering "flight" efforts in 2012 and few have more experience with foiling yachts at this level.
Chief executive and skipper Hutchinson has four Cup challenges behind him and has raced alongside Barker in more than 40 regattas over the years, most recently in the TP-52's.
What does it decide?
Officially, nothing - as the America's Cup World Series and Prada Christmas Cup do not carry any points towards the Prada Cup in January. But along with important practice and the chance to fine-tune combinations and boost confidence, the four-day regatta will also show whose design approach is on the right track.
Unfortunately for those who are off the pace, there won't be much time to make wholesale changes.
What can we expect?
There will be differing strategies. Generally, syndicates will want to win and sail as fast as possible, but with a few caveats. Reconnaissance of the other teams is also important, and there are greater learning opportunities from tight duels rather than one-sided races.
Teams will want to push, but not too hard. No one wants to risk serious gear failure. They will also be wary of locking horns at close quarters; the crews have had limited time on these second-generation AC75s and their speed and acceleration can be frightening, so no one will want to risk a collision or serious damage.
How are teams shaping up?
It is early days – equivalent to pre-season matches in rugby – and crews are still learning about the boats and their abilities. But Team New Zealand have been a standout so far, both with their straight-line speed and ability in transitions.
They have also had more time on the water than anyone else and have seemingly avoided hardware issues.
Luna Rossa struggled to stay with the Kiwi syndicate last week but looked more comfortable in lighter winds against American Magic on Monday.
The Americans have had their moments in their limited trials and appeared quicker in strong breezes, though Barker has emphasised Patriot's all-round qualities.
Ineos Team UK is an unknown quantity; they have barely been sighted over the last two weeks, with constant, unspecified issues. It's either just a coincidence and unlucky timing, or evidence of more underlying problems with Britannia II.
Enjoy smooth sailing to the Cup with Auckland Transport
• Avoid traffic congestion and parking niggles and download the AT Mobile app to plot your bus, train or ferry ride to race venues before you leave home.
• Make sure your AT HOP card is in your pocket. It's the best way to ride to the Cup
• For more ways to enjoy race day, visit at.govt.nz/americascup