British competitive sailor Sir Ben Ainslie, the Team Principal and Skipper of INEOS Britannia, reflects on the last few months – including SailGP Saint-Tropez, the America's Cup preliminary regatta and a second SailGP event.
The last couple of months have been some of the most intense I can remember in my sailing career. September, in particular, was incredibly busy with back-to-back events starting with SailGP Saint-Tropez, followed by the America’s Cup preliminary regatta in Vilanova and finishing in Taranto, Italy, with a second SailGP event.
As if to match the hectic schedule, the performances went from one extreme to the other. After a dramatic come-from-behind in the final race to win at Saint-Tropez, we then suffered the ignominy of a last place finish in Vilanova, with NYYC American Magic finishing first and Emirates Team New Zealand second. It was a rare feeling to go from a satisfying win to a demoralising loss and it did remind me of a saying a mate of mine, Piers Morgan, likes to quote: “One day you’re the cock of the walk and the next you’re a feather duster.”
The performance of our America’s Cup team, INEOS Britannia, was the result that certainly focused my attention. While it’s true that you learn more from your losses than your victories, it sucks to lose and this was a hugely disappointing result for the team. In some ways, the lack of performance from us versus others was not entirely unexpected, more on this later, but for any sports team to finish last is far from the plan.
I am not one for excuses but there were some mitigating factors to our lack of performance. Let me explain. In this edition of the Cup, teams are allowed to use test boats up to 40ft (12 metres) in length. The teams are pretty much split in their approach to this, with Emirates Team New Zealand, the Swiss team Alinghi Red Bull Racing and NYYC American Magic using the AC40 as their test platform, keeping one AC40 in one-design trim and using a second AC40 to trial modifications in real time out on the water.
Italian team Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and ourselves have taken a different route by designing and building our own test boats and not utilising the AC40 for testing. The French challenger, Orient Express Racing Team, has just the one AC40 but has made great use of their limited time on the water. It’s therefore not a total surprise that the two most experienced teams going down the AC40 route were the two dominant teams in Vilanova.
I guess the obvious response to that is: why would you not match that approach and have better preparation time for the preliminary regattas? And that’s a valid argument. The answer is perhaps difficult to explain within the confines of this column but I’ll have a crack. The benefit of designing and manufacturing your own boat and components is that it forces you to tackle many of the complex design decisions and trade-offs in a real environment.
With a new design group/structure, which we effectively have in our partnership with Mercedes F1, we took the strategic decision to go through that design and build phase in order to learn from any issue that might arise. Inevitably there have been issues but the lessons learned from them will be invaluable as we go through the same process with our 75ft (23-metre) race boat, RB3. None of that makes the loss in Vilanova any easier to stomach, we don’t take a result like that lightly and will work our backsides off to come back stronger for the second preliminary event, due to be held in Jeddah in early December.
Looking at the positives, SailGP continues to go from strength to strength commercially with some exciting announcements coming imminently. Our Emirates GBR franchise has had its ups and downs this season with some poor opening races in Chicago and Los Angeles buoyed by the success in Saint-Tropez and Taranto. I’m proud of how the team has dug deep and pulled through what ended up being far too long a dry spell. Our coach, Rob Wilson, worked hard to keep things focused and is always looking for gains through every race, and that’s a big part of what any team needs to do in order to find their rhythm on the racecourse.
I’ve talked many times in this column about just how important momentum is in sport. We have an opportunity now to build on what we started on the Côte d’Azur and keep the good times coming.
First published in the November 2023 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP