When Ben Ainslie Racing announced that its new CEO for Britain's America's Cup bid would be Martin Whitmarsh there was some understandable confusion. Yes, Whitmarsh was a Formula One stalwart and did wonders as the chief executive of the rapidly expanding McLaren Group, but his sailing experience? Virtually nil.
“I’m not a sailor,” he confesses when we meet at BAR’s high tech new headquarters in Portsmouth. “I’ve been on boats and I’ve owned boats, but this is really a new experience for me. I briefly helmed one of the AC45s a few weeks ago which, for someone who can’t tell the front from the back of a boat, made me feel pretty fortunate.”
A self-confessed newbie who's more comfortable behind the driving wheel of an F1 racer than a high-speed foil, the choice does initially seem strange. So how exactly did he end up in charge of Britain’s America’s Cup bid? “San Francisco was a game-changer in terms of what the America's Cup could be," explains Whitmarsh. "So when Ben rang and asked if I would join the team it was pretty easy to say yes. I wanted to be part of this incredible challenge - this is a 164-year-old trophy that we’ve never won!”
The adrenaline rush
It is this competitive spirit that makes Whitmarsh ideal for the job. Having spent over two decades at the helm of a leading team in one of the world’s most glamorous international sports, he says the America's Cup was a challenge "that ticked all the boxes". However, as an adrenaline junkie by nature and necessity, he admits it is the thrill of pre-race nerves that really brought him out of retirement.
"Two minutes before an F1 race my heart would be going at 180bpm even though I wasn’t physically doing anything," Whitmarsh says. "I’d said what I had to say to the drivers, I had my head set on and I’d left the grid so I knew I couldn’t influence anything but that's the excitement and adrenaline of racing. Now I’m looking forward to standing down at the front before the first America’s Cup challenge and thinking, ‘Why the hell is my heart beating at 180bpm?’”
Money = technology
An America’s Cup challenge doesn’t come cheap and it fell to Whitmarsh to find the mammoth £80 million necessary. “We’ve not been shy about money,” he admits. “We’ve got the best sailors in the world and we’ve got to give them the most technically advanced boats possible.” However, thanks to a mixture of private investors and sponsors, including an exclusive title and innovations partnership with Land Rover that saw the team renamed Land Rover BAR, Whitmarsh is more positive than ever.
He emphasises, though, that what is particularly crucial about these partnerships is not the money but the expertise they bring from other sporting arenas. “We have aerodynamic wings, flaps, hydrofoils and rudders that all have control systems. Simulations and mathematical models are paramount - you can’t make design tradeoff decisions by the seat of your pants or by pure experience and these technologies are well developed in motor sport.”
Indeed, it is this need for design diversity that has seen pre-eminent F1 designer Adrian Newey working with the BAR team as part of their partnership with Red Bull. With years of experience at the cutting edge of motor technology, he is an undoubted asset to an already brilliant team, and it is fresh eyes like this that Land Rover BAR hope will lead them to victory.
The new HQ
For now, spirits are high in the BAR team thanks to the opening of their stunning new HQ on the coast of the Solent. Designed and built with input from sailing owner Wendy Schmidt’s 11th Hour Project, BAR has become the first UK sports team to achieve ISO 20121 standard and the building has met all international standards in terms of sustainability.
All of which, Whitmarsh insists, means they’re here for the long term, “The America’s Cup has always been very campaign based. People would be recruited, they’d do a job and then everything would disband at the end. What we have to do is give these people a great challenge and also a great career. This base is in a brilliant marine area and we want to make ourselves into a palace of naval engineering.” Win or lose, one thing is clear: team BAR is here to stay.