Rule Britannia: Sir Ben Ainslie masterminds brilliant comeback
Sir Ben Ainslie’s Great Britain SailGP team engineered a stunning comeback to be crowned inaugural champions of the Bermuda Sail Grand Prix presented by Hamilton Princess in the Great Sound yesterday.
The British made up considerable ground on the leaderboard in the remaining two qualifying fleet races to secure their spot alongside defending champions Australia and France in the winners-take-all podium race, which they won to give team grinder Neil Hunter the perfect birthday present.
“It’s big man Neil’s birthday, so we thought we better sign off on a good note,” an elated Ainslie said.
“A cracking race, it was awesome. It’s what we want to do for you; go up against these guys in conditions like this, which are perfect.”
The Australians led coming off the start after crossing at the windward end of the line at more than 87km/h.
However, Ainslie had control on the inside on the short reach to the first mark, which he used to his advantage as he forced his rival out wide towards the course boundary before rolling over into a gybe and surging ahead for good.
“We tried to give him a little luff just down to mark one and were quite close to him to a penalty,” he added. “It was all on that gybe on the boundary and the guys nailed it. That was really the difference.”
Tom Slingsby and his Australia crew did all they could to remain in the hunt.
But the damage had already been done as Ainslie protected his advantage the rest of the way to clinch the SailGP season 2 opener.
It was the British team’s second successive win on the circuit having also won the original season 2 opener in Sydney in February 2020 before the rest of the season was scrapped because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“A few tough moments from then on in,” Ainslie added. “But again the guys sailed the boat really well, really solidly around the course and it was a great race.”
Slingsby’s team finished second with France rounding off the podium in third.
The defeat was particularly harsh for the Australians, who won four for of the five qualifying fleet races en route to the podium race.
“It was a great race,” Slingsby said. “We feel a little hard done by; we sailed so well all week.
“But those are the rules; you got to win that last race. We knew it when we signed up and we were close, but not quite there.”
Great Britain’s title hopes hung in the balance having gone into the final day of racing sixth among the eight international teams competing in the wing-sailed foiling F50 catamaran. And they responded brilliantly as they came from behind to pass leaders Australia and win the opening race.
Ainslie’s team took the lead for good heading up the first beat.
The Australians were laying into the top right weather mark on port tack but failed to stay clear of their rivals who had the right of way on starboard. Slingsby took evasive action but it was too late as he was tagged with a penalty, which all but clinched it for his British rival.
Despite the setback, the Australians had still done enough as their second-place finish clinched their spot in the podium race, leaving Great Britain, France and Spain to battle for the remaining two spots in the final qualifying race.
With no margin for error, Ainslie’s team’s hopes appeared to be in jeopardy after coming off of their foils on the final approach to the first leeward gate at the bottom of the course.
However, they quickly recovered to take second and secure their place in the final along with the French and the Australians.
“We knew what we had to do and we had a good start and were in good shape but we really made a mess at the bottom gate with [New Zealand],” Ainslie said. “Got caught up with them and came off the foil and lost those key positions to the Spanish and the French, so we had to put together a pretty perfect race from then on in.
“Thankfully, we managed to get past and just about do enough, but it was close.”
Yesterday’s racing was not without incident as United States and Japan collided heading up the first beat in the opening race.
Both teams were forced to retire for the day as their boats sustained considerable damage, with the Americans’ day going from bad to worse when they capsized shortly after the initial mishap.
Summing up the regatta, Sir Russell Coutts, the SailGP chief executive, said: “Quite simply that was the best racing I think I have ever seen on television for a sailing event. What a day. There was drama, fantastic quality of racing, lots of lead changes – it just had everything.
“Unfortunately, it had a crash but you are going to get that in high-level racing every now and then, but it was really exciting stuff.
“I think it just showed again what a fabulous venue Bermuda is to run international sailing competitions and for a SailGP event, it is absolutely perfect. We missed the crowds due to the current pandemic but everyone saw what the racing was like and what a stunning backdrop Bermuda is, and that’s the main thing.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled with Bermuda and we certainly want to come back for many years to come."