America's Cup: Why Ben Ainslie is Team New Zealand's worst nightmare

Without Emirates Team New Zealand, the 34th America's Cup in San Francisco would have been an unmitigated disaster. If Luna Rossa or Artemis Racing had been the challenger, Oracle would have won every race by at least five minutes and the concept of high-speed foiling catamarans would have been consigned to the scrap heap.

Instead, millions of television viewers world-wide and tens of thousands of spectators on the shore watched spellbound as Jimmy Spithill and his Oracle Team USA crew came back from 8-1 down to win perhaps the most competitive and exciting sailing event of all time.

As well as the close racing, the 34th Match had what every America's Cup event needs to capture the world's imagination – spite.

Bad Guys

Ever since the Americans cheated by sailing inside a mark (see Related Content) to win the Cup for the first time, it has been an event that polarises people. Remember the bad old days in Newport when the Americans decreed that everything had to be made in the country of origin, because America had all the best materials? And when that wasn't enough, they simply moved the goalposts in the middle of the event, provoking the famous headline, “Britannia rules the waves and America waives the rules.”

The 34th Cup had spite in spades. Here was tiny little New Zealand with her population of five million taking on the world's third richest man and a nation of 320 million. (The fact that there was only one American on the boat didn't seem to matter.) To add to the controversy, the ETNZ team boss, Grant Dalton, and the Oracle CEO, fellow Kiwi Sir Russell Coutts, hate each others guts.

And that's what brings me to the present day.

Last week Oracle announced that a proposal to replace the AC62 with foiling AC45s would be voted on tomorrow (Tuesday) and was expected to be passed by a majority of the five challengers. Luna Rossa promptly issued a statement saying they would pull out if the boat was changed, and ETNZ also came out against the smaller boat.

Oracle then announced that the qualifying regatta that had been scheduled for Auckland would now be sailed in Bermuda. ETNZ said they had a signed contract to host the regatta and would take legal action if necessary. This is where I think they have to be very careful.

As Fast as a 72 Footer

It is always impossible with the America's Cup to know who is telling the truth. Sometimes no-one is, making it even more difficult. But by sorting through the various media releases, reading between the lines, thinking about who has been proved right in the past, and getting a few off-the-record comments from people who should know, here's what I think happened. I emphasise that I only think this is the way it unfolded.

Because the protocol states that the Cup AC62s can't be launched until 2017, the teams have been playing around with souped-up AC45s on foils, testing all the components they intended to scale up for the big boats when the time came. 

Someone, possibly Oracle themselves but more likely Ben Ainslie Racing who have been very active in Bermuda already, suddenly said, “Hey, these things go as fast as the 72s, they're much easier to handle, they look awesome on video and need a smaller crew. Why don't we save a shed-load of dough and race these instead?”

Most of the teams are short of the $US100 million needed to mount a competitive challenge, so the initial reaction was favourable. I think, but don't know for sure, that Emirates Team New Zealand was one of the teams who agreed that saving all that dough would be a good idea.

Collateral Damage

Russell Coutts had promised Auckland the qualifying regatta for two reasons. It's his home town, and he wanted ETNZ in the Cup.

A condition for getting ETNZ much needed funding from the NZ Government was that the qualifying event would be held there. That would generate tourist dollars and international exposure, justifying the government funding an elite sports team. Without the government funding, ETNZ would struggle to survive.

However, Coutts was under pressure from the European teams who don't want to go to Auckland. The cost of moving their whole operation to the Southern Hemisphere for three months will be very high and they said they'd much rather that the whole event was held in one venue, the way it's always been in the past. Bermuda, the host for the 35th Match, obviously agreed.

So Coutts went to Dalton and said with all the bucks saved by going to the AC45s (taking the cost of a competitive team to between $US40 and $60 million) ETNZ shouldn't need government funding any more. Therefore he was taking the qualifier off Auckland.

So Dalton came out and said he wouldn't vote for the AC45s and ETNZ would take action against the Defender for reneging on the qualifer deal.

High Stakes Poker

I'd hate to play poker against Dalton. He almost single-handedly put ETNZ back together and while the booming economy of Australia wasn't able to enter either the America's Cup or the Volvo Ocean Race, Dalton entered both. He did it by convincing commercial partners like Emirates, Nespresso and Toyota to put big bucks in, but he also extracted significant government money by saying that without it there would be no team. The government was never prepared to call his bluff and handed over the cheque.

Dalton is going “all in” by effectively demanding both the AC45s AND the Auckland regatta (despite publicly saying he's against the smaller boat). But if he thinks Coutts and Oracle will fold because they need ETNZ in the Cup, I think he might be in for a rude shock.

In my opinion, Coutts will call his bluff. And I think the reason, to get back to our headline, is Sir Ben Ainslie.

A New Hero

As I said at the start of this piece, without ETNZ the 34th Match would have been a disaster. They provided the David and Goliath element and the “good guys v bad guys” scenario the Cup needs and always produces.

But Bermuda will be different to San Francisco. There are currently five challengers instead of three and even if Luna Rossa and ETNZ pull out, the three that are left will provide a lot better competition in the Louis Vuitton Cup than we saw in San Francisco.

But the ace in the hole for Coutts is Ben Ainslie Racing. They have replaced ETNZ as the opponent most likely to make a real contest of it.

They have the charismatic Sir Ben Ainslie at the helm. He's the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, one of only nine men to have won an Olympic gold medal and the America's Cup, he's got a well-funded campaign and he's tapped into the design and management expertise of Formula One racing to add the X factor to his challenge.

But most important of all, being British he can rake up all the injustices of the past, from the “inside the mark” incident when the schooner America won the first ever race to all the shenanigans of the New York Yacht Club.

He is the new “good guy” to big, bad Larry Ellison.

Change Tack

So, in my humble opinion, Grant Dalton is on shaky ground if he tries to bluff Russell Coutts on this one. I think Coutts will call him.

The tragedy is that for the first time, New Zealand needs to be in the Cup more than the Cup needs New Zealand. If ETNZ folds it's hard to see the country every mounting another challenge. It would require another Sir Peter Blake to revive the dream and he was a one-off.

Dalton knows his situation much better than I do, so it's probably presumptuous of me to offer advice. But based on what I do know, I'd be changing tack completely.

I'd accept that the qualifier is gone and I'd tell the other teams, “OK, so you don't want to come to Auckland. Well we're coming to Bermuda and we're going to win this bloody thing again. Then you'll ALL be coming to Auckland, and we'll be writing the rules.”

In fact, the AC45 is a godsend for the Kiwis, who arguably have the best sailors in the world on smaller catamarans and foilers. Glenn Ashby has won 15 world catamaran championships and dominated the recent A Class Cats, sailed on foils for the first time. His ETNZ teamates Blair Tuke and Peter Burling took the minor placings. That pair is also the current 49er World Champions and Burling took out the 2015 Moth Worlds. These guys know how to sail fast, manoeuvrable foilers.

ETNZ also has an excellent design team. We should not forget that it was their team that saw the flaw in the AC72 rule that allowed foiling, long before anyone else did.

If the Challengers vote to change the boat to AC45s this week, and they need only a majority decision, not a unanimous one, I hope Dalton comes out fighting. The Kiwi public have lost a lot of faith in the team over the poor handling of Dean Barker's sacking. The only way to get them back onside is to show them the Kiwis can still win it.

The AC45 means ETNZ need less money – they already have everything else. So what about it Dalts? Are you going to fight them in the courtroom where money talks (and they have a lot more of it than you do) or have a red-hot go at them on the race course, where it's talent that counts?

– Roger McMillan, editor

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