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Three weeks and counting to start of action

Three weeks — that's 21 little days to go before the first real America's Cup Qualifying race leading to the selection of the official challenger for Bermuda's America's Cup is sailed.

On that first day — Friday, May 26 at 5pm — the first race that counts will see a new challenger, Groupama Team France, matched against the seasoned defender, Oracle Team USA. This is a battle of the first team and the last team to enter the 35th America's Cup competition.

Other matches on the opening day card are Artemis Racing v SoftBank Team Japan, Team France v Emirates Team New Zealand and Land Rover BAR v Artemis. BAR, as the winner of the AC World Series in 2016, carry two good bonus points going into the Qualifying stage. Runners up Oracle carry one bonus point.

Following Friday night's Opening Ceremony, bands, party and fireworks, sailing action heats up again on Saturday, May 27 at 2pm with four matches scheduled. This Qualification competition is a double round-robin series including all of the challengers. Also, for the first time in America's Cup history, the defender is included. Each win is a point, a loss is a zero. High score wins.

The top four challengers qualify for the semi-final playoffs. One challenger fails to qualify and is eliminated. The defender goes off to watch the action and waits till the ultimate America's Cup Match starts on June 17.

Unfortunately for Oracle, they cannot continue to practise against the one eliminated challenger. The last day of match-up “practice” is June 12.

Where do the five challengers stand now as they head into a week of solo sailing and anticipate the next match-up practice period, starting May 15?

Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill compared the practice process to preseason American football. But maybe it is more a game of leapfrog, played on an uphill slope. Teams will make leaping gains and who wins at the top of the hill will depend on who gets that last big leap. With three weeks to go no one believes that any team has shown all its strengths, nor have any reached their full potential. Remember the comeback on the bay in AC35.

Artemis seem to be the cream of the teams following the practice session that ended last Friday. But they may have been surprised by Team New Zealand, the last to launch in Bermuda who joined the unofficial racing for the first time one week ago.

The Kiwis lined up against Artemis, Team Japan and Team France on the final Friday. They took the Swedes, but maybe not so fast. Artemis played coy in the pre-start and trailed Team New Zealand safely to the line a half minute behind. Team New Zealand lost to Team Japan and then beat Team France in their second try after retiring in the pre-start of their first encounter.

Glenn Ashby, the Team New Zealand skipper, gave his thoughts on the first day of practice, “We learnt plenty today, but the main thing that sticks out is just how close all of the boats are in performance, and therefore how close the racing is going to be. It could very well come down to the finest design detail or smallest mistake on the water that is the difference between winning and losing at any stage of the competition.”

Russell Coutts, the America's Cup chief executive officer, critiqued the racing period ending Friday. “This past week we've seen all six teams out on the water. Definitely Artemis Racing are still the form team — if we were racing the America's Cup today they'd have to be the favourite. The French have started to improve and we've seen some improvement from Land Rover BAR.”

“We've seen the introduction of some of the light wind boards by some of the teams. The evolution with this America's Cup has been quite incredible but there's still a long way to go with some of the teams in terms of their reliability. A lot is still changing. It's too early to predict who's going to be strong but the performance of the boats is incredibly impressive. We've certainly seen speeds of 47 knots, some even at 48 knots, so we're getting close to that 50 knot (93kph) speed barrier.”

Artemis skipper Nathan Outteridge said, “We've had plenty of close racing against the other teams the last couple of days and it was great to see Emirates Team New Zealand joining the race week. We had our light wind boards [foiling daggerboards] in for a couple of the days and it's been good to begin working on our light wind configurations.”

“We are very happy with how things are going with good starts, and with heavy winds in the middle of the week,” Outteridge added. “We also had good top speed sailing. It's been a successful week, now we have a couple of days off and then we are looking forward to making the boat go quicker again.”

Spithill said: “We learnt a lot this week. There's still a lot of potential left untapped in our boat and crew work.”

“Thursday we had strong conditions. We had a difficult gybe in a race against Artemis and a few of the stress alarms on the boat went off, so we came in to check a few things. As it turned out, nothing was damaged, but it meant we lost a bit of race time.”

“Friday was great. We're still on our high-speed boards [heavy air daggerboards] and even though we were a bit out of range for them in today's [lighter] conditions, we managed to have some good races, and some interesting line-ups outside of racing. We gathered a lot of useful information to feed into the design team. “

“We've been happier with our crew work. We're trying to do a few things in our playbook differently and the guys have really responded well to the challenge.”

“It was good to see Dean Barker and SoftBank Team Japan, beating Team New Zealand by a healthy margin in their race today.”

Dean Barker, skipper and CEO of Team Japan, wrapped up the week on a high note. “The practice racing last week was incredibly valuable for the team. Racing periods like that put everyone under pressure and gives you the opportunity to go through all the small checks to make sure there's nothing missing come race day.”

“We're really happy with how we're going — at this point there's nothing in it among the top teams. [We had] good wins against all our competitors this week and [are] really happy with some new modifications to the boat. There are still plenty of new pieces the boat builders are fabricating and installing … no one will know the hand each team holds until May 26.

Barker praised Team Japan's efforts. “The attitude of the team is what's been impressive to me, you can see everyone here is digging in at the moment and working overtime knowing that it will only get harder with less time and more things to do. That attitude is what's going to help us be successful on the start line in a few weeks' time.”

Franck Cammas, the Team France skipper, is optimistic, “We're barely a month away from the start of the competition. It's the final straight. The sailors are focused on sailing a fine course and having a great race on the water.”

“We're working on the starts, the timings and all the manoeuvres during a course.” Cammas added. “In fact, we'll run through an entire course.”

“At the same time, the shore team is continuing to develop the AC Class boat. There are always developments … the lack of time we have is frustrating, but at the same time, it's rather good news as we know that we still have room to improve technically, particularly regarding the systems and the complicated parts, which require fine-tuning.”

“The whole team is working flat out. Over the course of this last month, we'll need to manage the sailing and preparation days as best we can. The schedule is full right through until 26 May. Everyone has to focus on their task as to ensure we perform as well as possible during the elimination rounds.”

Hotting up: Team Japan defeat Team New Zealand on the Kiwis' first practice race day. New Zealand defeated Artemis and Team France (Photograph by Hamish Hooper)

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Published May 05, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated May 05, 2017 at 1:10 am)

Three weeks and counting to start of action

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