Start - Tick. First Cross - Tick. Race....

It's just not happening for Luna Rossa...

On Sunday, in race three, Luna Rossa won the start, but not the first cross. Today, in race four, they won the start and the first cross, but not the race. The Italians just can’t get a result on the board, and with today’s 52 second defeat putting them 4-0 down, a come-back would require a unique achievement in Louis Vuitton and America’s Cup racing.

And once again, it started so well for Luna Rossa – with the pin end entry in the light air it looked like they would be in trouble in the dial-up. But with a perfect, on-time entry, deep angle into the box and a little bit of line bias their way, they got across in front of ETNZ to take the right hand side of the pre-start box. Luna Rossa’s weather call was for the right, and Luna Rossa’s helmsman, Jimmy Spithill made sure they got it.

The Kiwis didn’t put up too much resistance, and ETNZ strategist, Ray Davies said afterwards that they had no strong feeling about the start, reckoning that the left can pay in that north-easterly. And they were confident that there was more left shift to come after the gun – both relative to their wind direction at that moment, and from what they’d seen on the met buoys before they entered. And come it did, but not in time to win them the first cross.

Luna Rossa wanted the right big time, they pushed ETNZ down towards the pin where the Kiwis started on starboard, while Luna Rossa tacked away to start on port at the committee boat. And immediately it looked like Luna Rossa had the better of it. They tacked to go with the Kiwis after the boats had separated by about a kilometre, and a long starboard followed. When ETNZ tacked to set up the first cross, the Italians were four lengths in front. As Luna Rossa tactician, Torben Grael told the press conference, it was a great weather call for the first shift, and a great start.

But this first cross was decision time again for Luna Rossa, and they chose to keep the right, tacking on ETNZ and forcing them back to the left. Again a split opened, Luna Rossa taking a little port tack lift out to the right, before hitting the header and tacking back - all good, solid stuff. But the Kiwis had found something better, they were deep in stronger left-hand breeze, and as the second cross came up it was obvious that ETNZ had halved the deficit.

It was the next call that sealed Luna Rossa’s fate - realising that they were now losing on the header, they tacked ahead and to leeward of ETNZ, instead of going all the way across and tacking on them. The move sacrificed a controlling position, in order to avoid making further losses by getting off the bad shift, and getting back in phase. But the problem was that Luna Rossa hadn’t gone far enough to get into the breeze line that was giving ETNZ her gains. And as both boats sailed out towards the starboard tack layline, the metres just kept going to ETNZ – sailing higher and faster to windward of Luna Rossa.

Afterwards, Torben Grael told the press conference that they knew they were on the header as they came into that second cross, and they believed they should protect the right-hand side – so what they did made sense. But in pure match racing terms, getting across the Kiwi’s bow to consolidate the lead was the call – it would also have protected the right. While the right hand wind shift did come back in the end, it was too late and not enough. So both boats sailed way over the starboard tack layline, with Luna Rossa forced to follow ETNZ back to the windward mark, rounding 20 seconds behind.

The story downwind was the same as it had been in the 8-9 knot breeze of race three – the Kiwis just trickled away. I don’t think it’s a huge speed difference, a couple of lengths or so down the run, but it’s enough to make it really hard for Luna Rossa to attack. The Italian cause wasn’t helped by the course being heavily biased to one gybe, giving little opportunity to get leverage and play shifts and puffs. Torben Grael said afterwards that the run was sailed with 18 minutes on port gybe, and just 3 on starboard – and that really doesn’t give the trailing boat a look in.

It got worse for the Italians at the leeward gate, where the right hand shift also means the right-hand mark is further upwind, handing the leading boat another advantage. Torben Grael’s rock or a hard place choice was to go around in the Kiwi’s wake and get slammed, or take another loss trying to get a split going by rounding the left-hand mark. Luna Rossa took the left-hand mark and an extra gybe to get there – and it all stacked up, by the time they were through the gate, the Italians were a formidable 54 seconds behind. ETNZ's tactician, Terry Hutchinson gave them nothing on the next beat, but ETNZ didn’t gain much either, the deficit 60 seconds at the top mark. And Luna Rossa brought a little breeze down with them on the final run to close the gap to 52 seconds at the finish.

Where now for Luna Rossa? They admitted that they don’t tack as well in this lighter breeze (we’ve watched the Kiwis control tacking duels right back through the round robins) and that Luna Rossa is not faster… Luna Rossa's mainsheet trimmer, Jonathan McKee thought a change to the boat overnight was possible, depending on the forecast, although he pointed out that if it was obvious what to do, they’d have done it by now. Jonathan, who’s a straight talking guy, just felt that the Kiwis have outsailed them. The Italians have another chance to reverse that tomorrow – and for the sake of the series, the neutrals will be hoping that they take it. Personally, I suspect it will need the breeze to get up over 10-11 knots…

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Mark Chisnell ©