Write me off at your peril – Ainslie
Business is about to get very serious for Sir Ben Ainslie and his Land Rover BAR team, as his dream of bringing the America's Cup back to Britain is finally put to the test. Over the next three weeks, five teams will be whittled down to one that will challenge Oracle Team USA for the America's Cup. Few think BAR will do it, but to be written off suits Ainslie just fine.
Four years ago, Ainslie came into the Oracle team as a supersub, taking over the tactician role alongside Jimmy Spithill, the skipper, as the team turned an 8-1 deficit into a famous 9-8 victory in San Francisco.
Ainslie was not content being a hired hand, though. He is in Bermuda at the helm of his own boat as the head of a team he built from nothing, with a nation behind him, battling the billionaire owners at their own game.
There is nothing more the proven teams here would like than to put Ainslie in his place. Even Oracle, with the seemingly unlimited resources of Larry Ellison behind them, could not win the Cup first time and, going by what has gone on in practice racing here, Ainslie is up against it. But victory is all Ainslie is thinking about.
“It would be crazy to go out and say ‘our goal is to finish second or third',” Ainslie said. “Why would we say that? Our team is here to win. We won the [America's Cup] World Series. That is a great achievement. The next step is to win the America's Cup.
“We could have said we're just going to take part this time and learn, and we are going to win it next time, but that's not the way I approach sport or how anyone here approaches it.
“There is only one challenging team in 166 years that has won it at the first attempt; those statistics show how hard it is. I don't feel any extra pressure because we have been clear about the challenge from the outset.”
At the entrance to the America's Cup Village, situated at Royal Naval Dockyard, the BAR base provides a home from home, right down to the three-point plug sockets in the wall. The base was exported entirely from Britain in 42 containers when the team relocated here from Portsmouth late last year. This week the Union Jack has been flying outside at half-mast for the victims of the Manchester bombing, while the sailors were on the water yesterday in black armbands.
The thick cloud that greeted Ainslie yesterday morning turned the sea from a welcoming turquoise to a foreboding shade of grey. But there was one last chance to get some sailing time before the competition gets going for real. BAR need all the sailing time they can get, as they are still off the pace.
The two-point start they will receive in the round-robin Qualifiers, because of their victory in the America's Cup World Series, combined with the poor performance of Groupama Team France, should guarantee them a place in the play-offs. That gives them ten days to find the missing speed they have been searching for. Since its launch in February, their boat has had new foils, new daggerboards, a new steering wheel to help control its flight and numerous other improvements.
“The closer you get to racing, then the closer you get to the knockout phases, the more critical it gets,” Ainslie said. “The nature of a development sport is different from, say, an Olympics. You don't really stop, taper off and go for the big push. You just keep going and going and going. We have effectively been racing for three years because of the design race we are in.
“We haven't been sugar-coating our situation. We've been lacking straight-line speed for some time since we came to Bermuda. We've been working tirelessly to rectify that. We have still got some components to come on to the boat over this weekend for the start of racing, which will make a big difference for us.
“A few of these things falling into place for us can help us make that jump to be competitive in terms of straight-line speed with some of these other teams. You look at the last Cup and that is a great example of how quickly things can change in this game.”
Artemis Racing, the Swedish team, have looked consistently fastest in practice racing, but Ainslie sees Oracle, who will compete in the opening round-robin series before advancing to the final match, as favourites.
BAR are putting everything into a final improvement. Ainslie cuts a slightly drawn figure right now, as he has cut his weight down to ensure the boat carries no extra pounds. The gaps between the teams is small, however, and this looks set to be among the most exciting editions of the America's Cup in history, and Ainslie does not care if the other teams want to write off his chances.
“If someone writes me off, I love that, that just makes me more determined to want to beat them,” he said. “Why would you wind up your opposition? That's motivation for us.
“Possibly a bit of it is because we won the World Series, possibly there is a bit of resentment because we are a new team and we are far and away the most successful team commercially. It's sport. At the highest level, it is inevitable that you are going to get some criticism and some needle.
“People try and play mind games all the time. In my experience, normally they backfire. The best approach is to go out and let your results do the talking. In the end, results don't lie.”