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Spithill makes the most of mind games

Jimmy Spithill

Few America’s Cup skippers have mastered the art of mind games quite like Oracle Team USA’s Jimmy Spithill.

The cocksure redhead wasted little opportunity in twisting the knife into Emirates Team New Zealand after puncturing their rivals’ hopes of winning the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Qualifiers.

Oracle, the defender, pocketed the “incredibly important” bonus point with victory over the Kiwis and now have an advantage heading into the best-of-13 series, which starts on June 17.

In what may have been a dress rehearsal in the race for the “Auld Mug”, Oracle ruthlessly punished Team New Zealand’s string of mistakes in the final round-robin phase of qualifying on Saturday.

Spithill was at his sharp-tongued finest after the race, emphasising the contribution of Tom Slingsby, Oracle’s tactician, 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,” Spithill said. “The other boat — they don’t have any of that. You can hear that in their communications.”

Spithill also mischievously claimed there was a leak in the Kiwis camp, saying he had prior knowledge that they would chose Land Rover 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 playfully insisted that his team’s hybrid system was “working just fine”.

The Australian said: “The shore guys still think there’s quite a lot of gain to be had there. 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.”

Spithill has a fearsome reputation when it comes to getting into the heads of his opponents during press conferences.

He broke the Kiwis’ hearts at the previous America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013, leading Oracle to a come-from-behind victory, often stretching the truth to unsettle his opposite number, Dean Barker, now of SoftBank Team Japan.

Oracle 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 — are taking on BAR in the semi-finals.

“The point could end up be incredibly important,” Spithill, 37, said. “Clearly that was our goal coming into this competition; we wanted that point. It was great to be under some pressure. We had to win that race and it was great to see the team’s response.”

The Kiwis had built some momentum entering the winner-takes-all affair, leading Oracle by one point, but came off second-best in their scrap on the Great Sound.

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.

Despite the loss, Team New Zealand are confident of advancing past BAR in the Challenger Play-offs.

“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.

Sir Ben Ainslie, the BAR skipper, who steered his team to victory against Team Japan before losing to Oracle on Saturday, 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 Saturday’s other race, Artemis Racing comfortably beat the already eliminated Groupama Team France. The Swedes will face Team Japan in the semi-finals.