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Spithill and Oracle rise to the challenge

Confident mood: Spithill and Oracle finished top of the standings to claim the bonus point

Jimmy Spithill, the Oracle Team USA skipper, believes the bonus point they earned after beating Emirates Team Zealand to win the qualifiers could prove “incredibly important”.

Oracle punctured Team Zealand’s hopes of topping the standings and now have a one-point advantage heading into the first-to-seven series, starting on June 17.

In what may have been a dress rehearsal in the race for the “Auld Mug”, Oracle responded superbly to the challenge posed by their much-fancied rivals and ruthlessly punished the Kiwis string of mistakes.

Team New Zealand had built some momentum entering the winner-takes-all affair, leading Oracle by one point, but came off second best in their scrap in the final round-robin phase of qualifying.

The defenders now have a fortnight to tweak their boat in search of greater speed, while the Kiwis — who earned the right to pick their opponents as the best challenger — take on Land Rover BAR in the semi-finals.

“It was great to be under some pressure,” said Spithill, whose team completed a sweep of wins over the Kiwis in the qualifiers.

“We had to win that race and it was great to see the team’s response.”

Spithill emphasised the contribution of Tom Slingsby, Oracle’s tactician, in the victory while taking a dig at Team New Zealand’s tactical set-up.

“One thing that is pretty powerful in our boat is we’ve got a dedicated technician in Tom Slingsby and Kyle Langford is also included,” he said. “The other boat — they don’t have any of that. You can hear that in their communications.”

Spithill also claimed there was a leak in the Kiwis camp, saying he had prior knowledge that they would chose BAR as their semi-final opponents.

Asked whether Oracle will add to the cycle station at the rear of their boat to bring them in line with the Kiwis’ pedal power, Spithill said his team’s hybrid system was “working just fine”.“The shore guys still think there’s quite a lot of gain to be had there,” Spithill said. “Every system in the boat will get a relook.

“We need to be faster to win this America’s Cup. There’s a lot left for the taking and we will be making all the steps to make sure we are more efficient in every way.”

Peter Burling, the Team Zealand helmsman, made several uncharacteristic errors to hand Oracle the win.

Oracle seized control at the start after forcing Burling into a penalty, and while the Kiwis pegged their opponents back, briefly taking the lead, two more penalties followed to end their chances.

Team New Zealand return to the Great Sound tomorrow for the first two races of their Challenger Playoffs against BAR.

“We believe with the forecasts over the coming week that it represents our best chance of progressing through,” said Burling, who took the opportunity to pass on his condolences to the family of New Zealander Mary Elizabeth McKee, who was killed in a boat crash in Hamilton Harbour on Thursday night.

Ben Ainslie, the BAR skipper, who steered his team to victory against SoftBank Team Japan before losing to Oracle today, said the British syndicate were up for the challenge.

“It is going to be a close race, but to win the America’s Cup you have to beat all the teams,” said Ainslie, whose team finished third in the qualifiers.

“Emirates Team New Zealand have certainly proved through this qualifying round to be sailing really well. They are very fast and so for us it will be a real battle.

“However, we are up for it and looking forward to it.”

In today’s other race Artemis Racing comfortably beat Groupama Team France, who had already been eliminated. The Swedes will now meet Team Japan in the semi-finals.