Man on Fire

Luna Rossa go through to the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup...

Day 6 of the Louis Vuitton semi-final opened with Luna Rossa and ETNZ needing just one more win to go through to the final - that fact alone would have surprised plenty of people 7 days ago. Then chuck in the real humdinger – by the end of Race 6, Luna Rossa were on their merry way, having dispatched Oracle 5 -1 with a 33 second fifth race win. And it was ETNZ having to come back Tuesday - like naughty schoolboys for extra work - to try again to put Desafio down, after the Spanish frustrated ETNZ with a 15 second win.

For Oracle, it may have been a different helmsman, as Sten Mohr replaced Chris Dickson, but it was the same result. Luna Rossa wanted the left-hand side of the first beat, and once again that was what they got off the line. Jimmy Spithill chased Sten Mohr for as long as he could, to make his life difficult, then peeled away to start at full speed on the pin on starboard, while Oracle had to luff around the committee boat to start on port. Inevitably, Luna Rossa tacked to cover and the pair of them headed upwind. It was soon clear why Luna Rossa wanted the left – stronger breeze or shift on that side lifted Luna Rossa’s bow higher than Oracle’s, and the Italians sailed out to a four length lead. And that really was the end of the contest. Torben Grael kept it pretty tight all the way round, and Oracle looked beaten.

The race was a microcosm of the whole series – the right weather call for the beat, followed by perfect execution of the strategy in the pre-start, allowing Luna Rossa to take control at the first cross. From there they only looked back once. It could so nearly have been 5-0. Oracle just weren’t good enough in the pre-start box, or in calling the first shift, and it killed them.

So I’m sure there will be a lot of talk about Chris Dickson stepping off the Oracle boat – was he pushed or did he jump - but in a sense, it’s already history. A more interesting question is - where does the team go from here? Will Larry stay with it, after a second disappointment? It might be worth it - Prada had a great first challenge, followed it up with a no-expense-spared and disappointing second, but came back wiser and stronger for their third effort... and look at them now. But we’ll have to wait and see as the dust settles.

Perhaps it might be the last time one of the big teams tries to combine the roles of CEO, helmsman and skipper. In the modern era many successful campaigns have been run with a sailor as main man - but not with a sailing role that demands too much of them. For instance, Peter Blake in the 1995 and 2000 version of Team New Zealand, and both Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand in this Cup.

Francesco de Angelis started the new model Luna Rossa by trying to run the team and sail as helmsman, but seems to have quickly recognized the limitations it placed on his ability to do both jobs. He got Philippe Presti in to steer the B boat, and now sails in the afterguard as skipper, while tending the backstay tension which is critical to trim and speed. So he’s sailing right through the campaign, in daily contact with the business end of the team, testing and training - which is essential - but not in such a pivotal role that he can’t miss a day or three to keep the machinery oiled elsewhere. Similarly for Grant Dalton at ETNZ, sailing onboard the race boat as floater, and running the campaign.

But ETNZ aren’t having things all their own way, and I suspect that sentiment will be shifting to Luna Rossa as favourites for the final. Barker and co made heavy weather of executing what may or may not have been the same game plan as Luna Rossa - or maybe Desafio offered greater resistance. With 26 seconds to go to the start gun, ETNZ were jammed to leeward of the Spanish about two thirds of the way up the line from the pin, having also looked like they wanted the left. Desafio had to tack for the boat, and I thought we were going to get another split tack start, with ETNZ bearing away to accelerate and start at the pin.

But no, gentle reader… instead, Barker tacked with Desafio, and found himself wallowing in bad air and waves, while the Spanish accelerated away. Both boats started on port with Desafio tucked up under ETNZ’s leebow, the Spanish going faster and with a half length lead. ETNZ tacked away for clear air and the pair held opposite tacks for a separation of 800m before ETNZ finally tacked to go with them. The Spanish picked their moment to come across on starboard and were a length or so in front and able to control the beat from there. A chunk of that advantage at the first cross will have come from the half length the Spanish had off the line, and the extra tack done by ETNZ – it’s a tight game out there.

A twisted Spanish spinnaker on the last gybe on the first run nearly let the Kiwis back into it, but not quite. And then ETNZ’s own first gybe on the final run let them down when they might have had a chance to roll Desafio. It gave John Cutler and co. just enough breathing room to sail deep for the finish, and showing no speed disadvantage in that mode the Spanish brought it home in front – and the celebrating was a lot wilder than on Luna Rossa, who had just won their semi 5-1…

So the Spanish live to fight another day, taking it to seven races, while Oracle are beaten in six. John Cutler will be pretty happy about that. He was with Oracle in Auckland, and got bumped off tactics when Dickson came back onto the boat during the Round Robins. He subsequently left the team, and now he’s got this young Spanish outfit further up the game than the mighty two-time challenger with the biggest budget. Revenge, I suspect, is sweet, and a dish best served cold. So too, for the OneWorld Challenge guys aboard Luna Rossa – not least Jimmy Spithill, who evened the score card after Oracle dumped OWC out of the competition in 2003. Spithill is a man on fire, Luna Rossa hitting a new level of performance at just the right moment.

I can’t wait to see the final.

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Mark Chisnell ©