So where did it all go wrong, Sir Ben?
A conservative design and a late arrival in Bermuda have been put forward as reasons why Land Rover BAR failed in its attempt to lift the America’s Cup, but Sir Ben Ainslie knew things were wrong long before the team relocated here last November. The key going forward is to make sure the same problems do not happen next time.
Land Rover BAR’s bid to claim the Cup came to an end on Thursday, when they were beaten 5-2 by Emirates Team New Zealand in the semi-finals of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Challenger Play-offs. But yesterday, Ainslie had reason to be proud to have run a team as good as New Zealand so close, considering how far they had been behind their rivals.
“We knew we had issues looking back as far as last summer, testing in the UK, because we had a lot of structural failures in our daggerboards and our rudders,” Ainslie said. “That had a knock-on effect of taking away critical testing time on our daggerboard design and rudder design.
“So already back then we were in trouble and that came through to coming out to Bermuda. Lining up against the other teams and then seeing they were so far in front wasn’t a surprise; we knew we were on the back foot. How do you recover from that?
“I’m not kidding anyone. It was very unlikely we were going to beat New Zealand because they did a better job with the boat. But I’m proud of the way we pushed them hard; we kept fighting. We gave it everything and took it as far as we could.”
The problems from their test boats translated to the race boat that was launched in Bermuda in February, as the design proved to be too conservative amid fears that they might not be able to remain on their foils for a whole race.
It led to a situation that BAR could win only if they had a perfect race. The opposition had the luxury of knowing they could still be quicker even if they made mistakes. Changes were made to the BAR boat daily in the hope that they would bring improvements. They did, but they were unable to catch the opposition.
“Our daggerboard design ultimately wasn’t aggressive enough,” Ainslie said. “That’s not pointing the finger at our designers; that’s the truth of it. We all went through it together in trying to recover.
“We were still putting new components, new rudders, on to the boat after racing began. Some changes were radical, some not too radical, and we were doing those on a daily basis and then had to work out how to get the best out of those. It was a high-risk strategy, but we needed to do that because it was obvious that we were not quick enough.”
The key problem, though, Ainslie believes can be traced back to the team’s formation three years ago. Building a team from scratch was never going to be easy, especially against teams such as New Zealand and Oracle Team USA, who had vast experience of designing and building this type of boat.
However, Ainslie believes BAR would have benefited from spending more time identifying the key areas of where the Cup was going to be won and lost.
“By the time we had the funding in place to set up the team, we were already six months behind the others,” he said. “With the benefit of hindsight, we probably rushed a lot of our key decisions because we were already behind and we needed to go faster to catch up.
“Taking more time to get the key strategy right would have helped us. The daggerboards are obviously key, the control systems, energy systems. For one to work you need the other. Once you have the strategy is in motion, to change that is incredibly hard.
“A lot of people have said we should have come out earlier; I’m not sure I agree with that. Look at New Zealand, they were the last team here. We could have been better with our reconnaissance, monitoring the other teams. We could have got that information despite being in the UK.
“Ultimately, the strategy was wrong and that goes a long way back; you can’t learn that from the other teams. You don’t know where they are going to go until they bring the boat out on the water. By then it is too late.”
There is little time to reflect on what is now the past. However, as planning must start for the next Cup, which is likely to be held in 2019. Ainslie will remain in Bermuda as part of a core team watching the remaining races as well as supporting BAR’s academy in the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup.
The budget for the next campaign will be smaller, partly because many of the investments of setting up the team, including building their base in Portsmouth, have already been made. Two key sponsors — Land Rover and Eleventh Hour Racing — have already committed to backing the next campaign, along with the team’s shareholders and investors.
“I’m disappointed as a sportsman; I hate losing,” Ainslie said. “But I am super proud of the team how they reacted to the number of setbacks we had. The difference with being an individual sportsman and being in a team is that you do it together.
“In a way, we did it the hard way by setting the team up for the long term, the 1851 Trust — a charity encouraging young people to be involved in sailing, engineering and the environment — the youth academy, building the base in Portsmouth. That takes a huge amount of work to put in place, but it sets the foundations for the future that we are a solid team and business structure, that we can be around for many, many years to come, so strategically that puts us in a strong place.
“We are looking at areas where we can improve. The work starts today on the future. We have got to get the strategy right, we have got to get the recruitment right. We will make changes to team; we’ve got to develop.”
The experience of Bermuda has taken the sport forward, though, Ainslie believes.
“The event has been a huge success,” he said. “Bermuda has put on a great event and the boats look great televisually.
“I had a few messages from mates back home going ‘the sailing is on at the pub’. For people to be saying that shows it’s come a long way.”
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