Battered and dazed, Oracle hit the canvas, but is it for the final count?

It was the most extraordinary pre-start we’ve yet seen in this Louis Vuitton. Oracle took two penalties, getting a red flag with the second – which meant it had to be done immediately. They started a hundred metres behind, with the second penalty still to unwind. The boys in white wriggled and worked, but Luna Rossa never looked like they were going to let them get back into it. The finish delta was 1m 57s, and the Italian boat is now within a single win of the Louis Vuitton Final.

In the other match, Jablonski and Desafio pushed Emirates TNZ up towards the committee boat and the Kiwis had to start with a downspeed tack – but it made no difference. ETNZ wanted the right for good reason - it had the better breeze and they were soon back into a controlling position. At the first cross, Desafio were a length behind. There’s been no coming back from there against the Kiwis, but the final delta tells a desperate story for Spain – 1m 49s.

So, that incredible start… The ironic thing is that it was the port tack entry that cost Oracle so dear. The port tack boat is always disadvantaged, particularly in light air when the boats can hold so long in the dial-up. Oracle have worked really hard on super-fast, right-on-the-pin entries that have often succeeded in overturning this disadvantage by allowing them to cross ahead of the boat entering on starboard – avoiding the dial-up and getting control of the right-hand side of the pre-start box - click here for more on this one.

But you need a little shift, or the other boat to be a little late, to get away with it… and today, Oracle got nada. They had to spin up into the wind to avoid Luna Rossa on starboard, and we had a dial-up. Now, as the clock ticks down, the pressure comes on to the left-hand boat, Oracle, to make a move. Otherwise, they both sit there until they’re out of time, the right-hand boat can turn onto port and accelerate first, and will just sail into the lead. So Dickson made his move, he fell onto starboard and sheeted in. But Jimmy Spithill and Luna Rossa matched the acceleration, and Dickson was instantly in trouble. He’s got Luna Rossa’s bow to leeward, he’s windward boat, he has to keep clear and he’s going over the line…

Dickson did what Dean Barker did in race 3 (in a similar situation at the committee boat end). Oracle tried to sail over Luna Rossa’s bow and gybe round in front of them to get back behind the line. It had the same result – penalty to Oracle. It was what happened next that made it different. Luna Rossa were locked in with Oracle, forced to gybe with them to avoid the collision, and both boats ended up on port tack, parallel to each other, with Dickson maybe ten feet to leeward. Luna Rossa are stuck there through no fault of their own, there’s no avoiding action they can take, and so when Dickson bore away and shoved his stern into Luna Rossa near the shrouds, the umpires had no choice – second penalty and a red flag for Oracle.

While there was no real way back into it for Oracle, they didn’t do themselves any favours at the leeward gate. They made an incredibly late call to switch from the right-hand buoy to the left, sailing almost the entire width of the gate in extra distance. It turned a 125m deficit on the gain line just prior to the gate (about five lengths or maybe 30s) into a 48s split by the time they had rounded the mark. Oracle seem to have a real dislike of following the leader round the same gate mark. Yesterday they got a massive split out of it which might have got them back into the race. Perhaps they were looking for the same today, the silver bullet they so desperately needed. But this time Luna Rossa tacked onto starboard with them and shut down the leverage almost immediately. The Italians continued to extend from there, and by the time Oracle had completed the second penalty turn just before the finish, it was a massive delta.

I doubt you’ll find too many people around the Port America’s Cup who think there’s a way back for Oracle from here. Their world has turned on its head so quickly. Six days ago they were still the pundit’s favourites. There were a couple of little blips – the headfoil failure against China Team, and then the loss against ETNZ in the final race of the Round Robin. But to most people these things seemed anomalies, and the buzz coming out of the team seemed to indicate that they agreed. Now, in an incredibly short space of time – compared to the years these guys have been working at it – they find themselves 4-1 down and fighting for their lives. Getting their heads round that must be the hardest part.

And if 3-1 to the bad is too early to change a team around – given that it very rarely works and you’re only a couple of races down - then 4-1 is too late. Luna Rossa have an unstoppable momentum. And the same can be said for the Kiwis – it will take something extraordinary from Oracle or Desafio to pull it back, or just to keep it going past tomorrow. But this is yacht racing, and extraordinary things are built into the game…

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Mark Chisnell ©