Burling reacts to Australia mark crash penalty; analyses Grand Final challengers

by Miranda Blazeby, Digital Editor

New Zealand driver Peter Burling is riding a wave of momentum heading into Bermuda after a triumphant Christchurch event. Not only did the Kiwis beat the fleet to win the event in front of home fans, but the victory, combined with a disastrous event for the Aussies, saw them take the overall season lead for the first time since Chicago.

It was a weekend of two halves, with the cancellation of Race Day One leading into a fast and furious second day of racing which, Burling describes as ‘the best in SailGP history’. It culminated in New Zealand winning their home event in front of their euphoric fans – a Season 4 high for the Kiwis, especially after Australia driver Tom Slingsby said beating them on their home turf was a ‘bucket list item’.

It may have been a definitive Final, with the Kiwis securing the best start, leading from Mark 1 and stretching away from France and Canada, but fleet racing kicked off with chaos.

First, there was a three-boat pile up involving ROCKWOOL DEN, Canada and the United States in the pre-start of the first fleet race. Then, shortly after the first mark rounding, Australia crashed head on into a race mark, resulting in so much damage to the team’s F50 that they were unable to compete for the rest of the event. Dissecting the incidents, Burling suggests teams struggled with the breezier conditions of Christchurch after a ‘really light season to date’, but adds he’s ‘not entirely sure’ why so much drama ensued. “It’s not like we didn’t get any practice,” he says. He describes it as ‘pretty unusual’. “It was just one of those days when two boats made mistakes in one race. It’s part of it and we’ve all been there.”

The Australians were severely punished for the crash. The team was docked 12 event points for reckless sailing, as well as 8 season points – a catastrophic penalty which, combined with New Zealand’s win, stripped them of the season lead.

A lengthy appeal process followed, with driver Tom Slingsby slamming the umpires’ decision to uphold the penalty. Burling looks at the incident ‘in two different ways’. He agrees with Slingsby that the collision rules are ‘incredibly harsh’ but argues they’re also ‘very clear’. So clear in fact that Burling ‘didn’t really see the point in even appealing it’.

Australia’s blistering penalty, combined with New Zealand’s 10 point win, leave the Aussies 9 points short of New Zealand at the top of the season leaderboard and only four points ahead of Spain in third. It’s a significant lead for the Kiwis heading into the last four events of the season and marks a remarkable rebound.

New Zealand’s season has been turbulent. A dramatic wing collapse at the end of racing on day one of Saint-Tropez resulted in an 8th place event finish. Then they were then forced to miss the entire Taranto event due to a lack of replacement equipment. “If you told me after Saint-Tropez that we’d be on top of the leaderboard right now, I’d have said that a fair few things have to roll the right way for us,” Burling says.

He notes the team’s points redress in Taranto, which handed them an automatic fifth place finish – or six season points – but even this mid fleet results, he says, is ‘short of the standard we set ourselves’. “Now we’re looking at the leaderboard and we’re at the right end of it, so we’re just going to keep continuing to put our best foot forward and win the races.”

Bermuda

Next up, SailGP heads to Bermuda for the 10th stop on Season 4’s record 13 event calendar. Slingsby has already made clear his intention to bounce back and set the record straight when racing resumes on The Great Sound and Burling fully expects the Aussies to be ‘pretty fired up’ when they hit the water. “They definitely run on high intensity in their program,” he says. New Zealand’s strategy meanwhile will be to ‘just go out and improve on a few things we were weak on in Christchurch”. Of course beating the Aussies and extending the season lead would be nice, but ‘we definitely won’t be having our eyes on one boat,” he says.

The Race to Third

It feels almost guaranteed to fans that New Zealand and Australia will appear in San Francisco’s season-defining Grand Final. But with only four events left to go, there are still several contenders eyeing the coveted third place. Currently occupying that all-important third place is Diego Botin’s Spain, but just one-point lead over Quentin Delapierre’s France, which narrowly lost out on Grand Final place last season. Four points below France is Nicolai Sehested’s ROCKWOOL DEN, which remains in the hunt for a first event win and place in the Grand Final.

Even the United States, Canada and Emirates Great Britain aren’t too far off the pace, with 10 points separating the British in 8th and the Spanish in 3rd. It’s a congested leaderboard and ‘incredibly open’ field, Burling says, but his bets are on Spain, France or ROCKWOOL DEN making it. ROCKWOOL DEN has, he says, ‘had some incredible events but haven’t managed to be consistent enough’, while France’s succession of 4th place finishes have kept them from the top three so far. Spain meanwhile gets Burling’s backing as the most impressive challenger. “Diego’s jumped on and done a really good job of slowly building a good environment on the team and it’s been cool to see their progression this season,” Burling says.

His focus however is fully set on ‘proving New Zealand is the best team’ on the leaderboard ahead of San Francisco. “We want to go into the Grand Final with momentum on our side,” he says, “if you can do that, you should be in with a good shot.”

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