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Teams face last-minute preparations

Four days to go before Oracle Team USA face Groupama Team France in Match 1 of the double round-robin Louis Vuitton Qualifers that will send one team packing and four move into the America's Cup Challenger Playoff Semi-Finals.

Last month we talked about teams making gains, leapfrogging ahead in speed, tactics, and reliability. So where do the teams stand now heading into the last week of training and practice?

“I'm happy with how we are racing,” said Artemis Racing's skipper Nathan Outteridge. “It has been incredibly close. We are currently balancing our time on the water to improve our sailing team skills, with time in the shed to improve the boat's performance.”

Team manager Iain Percy is well aware that the team has had good results in the previous race weeks, but is careful not to give that too much weight.

“The team hasn't really lost that many races in the previous two race weeks. That flatters us, and our speed is quite comparable with the top teams ... [but] that counts for absolutely nothing. It means we are in the hunt but we need to make quite a few improvements to be in a strong position.

“It's all about the relentless chasing after improvements and in this team, Artemis Racing, we are very motivated to keep pushing”.

Emirates Team New Zealand are feeling bashed — literally — but like their progress.

“Up until the last race with BAR on Tuesday we had a bloody nice day, we got the boat around the track really well, in really nice yachting conditions, but very unfortunate to get a hole in the boat on a practice race. I don't think Ben will be feeling too happy about it at the moment.” said skipper Glenn Ashby.

There is some shifty stuff going on, Team New Zealand's Blair Tuke told the country's Radio Sport Breakfast. “You don't want to let the opposition see everything you can do, you want to keep a bit up your sleeve, but at the same time if you want to execute something well, you have to practice it. You can't expect to put a new piece of equipment on, or suddenly do something differently on the first day of racing and expect everything to be 100 per cent. It's a fine line.”

“We have to get faster, we know that — we've said that from the start. The guys we have to beat to get to Oracle are good — SoftBank is going really fast, Artemis is fast, so to beat those guys we need to be at the top of our game.”

“That's the beauty of the America's Cup, it's always evolving, teams are developing and getting faster using different techniques so we've got to try and match that and then do one better.

“Each day you go and you learn something, but you have to think ahead and think where people are going to get to and where the bar is going to be set and hopefully have your eye further down the road than the other guy.”

Team France had some excellent starts and looked fast to the middle mark, but then lost ground going downwind on Monday and Tuesday. Despite the lack of ideal conditions on the water Wednesday, one race was completed with SoftBank Team Japan continuing their strong week with a victory over Team France.

Team France wing trimmer Thierry Fouchier conceded it was difficult sailing in low wind but believes the experience could prove invaluable come proper racing.

“We started the race [on the last practice day] with below the wind limit but it was good to try anyway,” he said. “It was tough because if you can get up on the foils then you can put a lot of distance between you and your competitor, but without that it is difficult. During the race the wind dropped below 5 knots and so there was no flying. In those conditions it is just not possible.”

“We learn things every day, we always learn in all conditions, even when it is tough like that. Next time we get the same [wind conditions] we will better for sure. If it is breezy historically we are below the others but I guess when it is light the race is more open and gives us more of a chance of winning.”

Jono Macbeth, of Land Rover BAR, said: “We're coming into the final week before an event like this and we're trying to find a balance of getting out on the water honing our skill and trying to find those last little ounces of boat speed and performance at the same time making sure everyone is in the same mind set and rested.”

“We're going to be looking at different crews and different set ups for the boats … how to configure the boats for light airs and heavy airs. The boats perform incredibly differently. The hardware you have on them is basically different, too.”

BAR skipper and principal Sir Ben Ainslie said: “We've still got new components coming on the boat that we need to test. It is a trade-off between making gains on the water and keeping everyone fresh.”

Team Japan skipper and CEP Dean Barker addressed the days ahead, “We've gotten a good feel for the opposition. Everyone has their final parts installed and are learning how to use them. They're all in that final fine tuning process ahead of starting racing next Friday and everyone is making gains around the course. You're starting to see that final pecking order though there's still a lot that can change before next week.”

“I think we're right at the top with the leaders though it's very, very close. It's going to come down to a genuine boat race.”

“As far as the pecking order, I think Oracle have made a good little step as of late. Our reliability has been very good this week which has been encouraging. To start each race on time is a huge part of it while we're still seeing other teams struggling with reliability. Losing just one race is going to be pretty expensive.

“The course has been great to get used to the past two days. With the boundaries being as tight as they are, you can't generate the kind of leverage you might like to do at times. As a result, you're always racing in close quarters so there's definitely a lot of boat management going on.”

Barker points out two surprises over the past two days.

“One has been how aggressive the practice racing has seemed to become evidenced by a pretty decent collision between two of the boats. Two, I think the way the level has continued to rise. You expected a plateau but the game is on to one up each other right now. How much space is left to evolve? The minute you might think about tapping out you would get gobbled up. Sometimes they might be very small or incremental gains but it all counts in the end.”

Oracle came out of the two days of practice upright and sailing fast and smooth. As the defender, automatically moving into the America's Cup Match on June 17, they have been fortunate to have these practice sessions to measure their performance and monitor upgrades.

Although the team only completed one full race on Tuesday, there were plenty of opportunities to line up and complete valuable tests.

“We've put in more hours than anyone over the last couple of days and we've had some really good racing,” Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. ”It's taken a huge effort from the shore guys to be able to do that, so our hats off to them.”

Spithill says that it is not time to commit fully to either scenario yet. “It's still a balance.”

“We tried to lock a few design things down for the past couple of days, but we're still heavily into the development curve.

“There's a lot of stuff we want to do and need to do still. On the flip side, I think as a sailing team we still have a heap to do to sharpen up, so getting these hours in has been very valuable.”

As all the teams have said, the clock is ticking. Between May 26 and June 16 the challenger for the 35th America's Cup will be decided to take its place against Oracle in “The Match”.

Time will tell.

Battle stations: Team New Zealand lead BAR around the windward mark in their first practice match last Tuesday (Photograph by Talbot Wilson)

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Published May 22, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated May 22, 2017 at 12:52 am)

Teams face last-minute preparations

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