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What can Oracle do to be competitive?

Oracle test their foils and rudders in early April. What changes have they made since then and what can they do now? (Photograph by Talbot Wilson)

Everybody following the America’s Cup Match, presented by Louis Vuitton, already knows that Emirates Team New Zealand have out-started and outpaced Oracle Team USA in the first four matches. That is no secret.

At the post-race press conference, Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill repeatedly said that changes were coming during the long, five-day gap in racing. To almost every question he bridged his answers back to the issue of changes and speed, avoiding any details on what they could and would do to solve the slow starts they have got.

“It’s pretty obvious,” Spithill said. “These guys [Team New Zealand] are faster. We need to make some serious changes ... clearly we need to put everything back on the table. These next five days will be the most important five days of the campaign.”

He added: “Everything is on the table, no two ways about it, We will look at every single thing we can. We’ve been here before [referring to the previous America’s Cup in San Francisco]. We’ve got five days to respond now. Everything is up for grabs. Nothing will escape our eyes in these next five days, whether it is system-related, appendage-related, or sailing technique; we’re going to look at everything.”

Spithill said that the Kiwis had speed and “an edge in a lot of the manoeuvres. We saw that against Artemis as well.”

He said: “We’ve got a lot of great boatbuilding resource, design, engineering. With the resources we’ve got here, we can make changes that improve the boat and give us more speed. We’ll be into 24-hour shifts. This isn’t our first rodeo.”

The situation remains that Oracle does not have a really fast boat. Artemis beat them in the Qualifiers and many people think that New Zealand could have. Some suggest that SoftBank Team Japan might have been able to do it as well.

Wind strength for this Saturday and Sunday is predicted to be the same as last weekend at 10-13 knots, but more stable from the southwest.

To find out more about what Oracle can and cannot do, The Royal Gazette turned to Martin Fischer, foil designer for Groupama Team France.

Aside from modifications to control systems to adjust the daggerboards, rudders and the wing, two items create drag in the water — daggerboards and rudders. That is probably where the biggest gains in raw speed can be made.

We asked: “What can Oracle do fix their ‘slows’ problem in five days?

Oracle may change one daggerboard foil shape within the rule — 10 per cent modification allowed — in five days?

Fischer replied: “I don’t know what kind of sections they are using. It could be possible to modify the section shape in some critical areas with non-structural fairings. This would for sure fit inside the 10 per cent limit. It seems that they suffer especially at lower speed.

“So it might help to add a winglet to the tip of the foil. This would also fit inside the 10 per cent limit. Both modifications could be done within five days. However, I have not done any deeper analyses of their foil shape, so I do not really know if this would really help.”

Oracle may decide to change the foil tips, as some have suggested.

Fischer explained: “I don’t think that it would be possible to rebuild tips within five days. I am not even sure they are allowed to do it. The rules allow a team to do four combined changes to the four race foils. Hence, either four modifications to one foil or one modification to each foil, where the changes must be limited to 30 per cent of the mass of the original foil. If they have already two tips for each foil, they have used the four combined changes.

The Kiwis’ rudder shaft shape and elevator design are quite different from Oracle’s other unique features such as their kinky foils.

Oracle may make modifications to rudders and elevators. “There are no limits on the number of rudders and elevators a team can use,” Fischer said. “But again I am not sure that [new rudders or elevators can be built] within the short time frame.”

With Spithill continuing to return to the issue of change, Kiwi helmsman Peter Burling was finally asked if New Zealand were holding back in the Qualifiers and Play-offs, then responding with speed whenever pressured by their opponent.

“We are learning and improving.” Burling said. “Our boat is going a lot quicker than it was a few weeks ago. We got pushed really hard by BAR in our semi-final and again by Artemis Racing in our Play-off finals. We learnt a lot from that. We are a lot tougher unit. Still we have a lot to work on over the next five days.”

The Kiwis are a moving target, a fast one at that, “We’re going to be a lot better next weekend,” Burling added.

Asked if he still had some secret weapon, Burling quipped, with a cool grin: “If we did have something secret, we wouldn’t be sharing it here.”