As the most decorated Olympic sailor of all time, Driver and co-owner of the British team Ben Ainslie is one of the best known athletes in SailGP.
He joined the circuit ahead of Season 2, replacing former Driver Dylan Fletcher and, in October 2021, took majority ownership of the team in a first for the league. Despite this, Ainslie has yet to race at a home event, after personal commitments meant he was absent from last season’s Great Britain Sail Grand Prix.
Interim Driver Paul Goodison stepped in, picking up fourth place overall. Now, with Ainslie in the driving seat, the Great Britain SailGP Team will be looking to build on their 2nd and 3rd place finishes in Bermuda and Chicago in front of the home crowd. We catch up with Ainslie ahead of the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix | Plymouth to talk team tactics and what to expect when racing resumes later this month.
It’s been six years since Ainslie has raced in front of a home crowd. The last time was the Portsmouth America’s Cup events in 2015 and 2016, both of which were won by his all-British Land Rover BAR team, and before that it was the 2012 Olympics in Weymouth and Portland, during which he clinched his fourth gold medal. But when it comes to Plymouth, Ainslie hasn’t sailed there since he was a teenager. “That was quite a long time ago,” he says, “I don’t have a huge amount of experience in Plymouth truth be told.”
Despite this, he describes Plymouth Sound as a ‘challenging but great venue’, with the breakwater providing ‘relatively flat waters’ and the Hoe acting as a natural amphitheatre. “It ticks all the boxes,” he says. One key obstacle for the teams will be the unpredictability of the British summer weather which, Ainslie says, can be ‘baking hot with a light sea breeze or pouring rain and blowing 25 knots’. “You just don’t know what you’re going to get.” Nevertheless, Ainslie is excited to hit home waters. “You don’t get many opportunities to race at home at this sort of level and it’s extra special to race in front of a home crowd.”
Ahead of Plymouth, Ainslie revealed how the team have shifted their tactics in Season 3 from ‘racing to win in every race’ to a ‘more conservative approach’. This shift is in response to the increased penalty points system introduced this season and Ainslie’s reflection on the team’s ‘risk and reward’ approach in Season 2.
“We obviously suffered through mistakes that cost us massively in terms of the overall season and in some ways we’ve had to go back to the drawing board on our traditional approach to racing.” He admits it’s ‘quite difficult’ to ‘go back over 20+ years of racing experience’ to make ‘a fundamental shift in your approach’, but these tactical changes are clearly paying off. The British team picked up a second and third place finish in Bermuda and Chicago and currently sit in joint second place overall, tied with Canada.
So far this season, racing has been noticeably cleaner, with no collisions between any boats in either Bermuda or Chicago. The increased penalty points have ‘forced teams’ to analyse their risk and reward strategies, Ainslie says. “Where there are potential high risk situations, teams are trying to do everything they can to back out of them rather than go in all guns blazing hoping for the best”.
The British team is also ‘looking hard’ at the three boat match race final, which was dominated by Tom Slingsby’s Australia in Chicago and Bermuda. Ainslie said that while the team ‘want to understand why the Australians are doing so well’, they’re refusing to ‘get too distracted’ by their narrative. “Our overall focus is just getting into that end of season final race off and ultimately winning that,” he says.
As well as taking the helm as Driver, Ainslie is also CEO and, along with Chris Bake, majority owner of the Great British SailGP Team. In 2021, the team became the first of the original eight SailGP teams to evolve to a third party owned franchise. Ainslie says the ‘huge potential’ of the league propelled him to invest.
“We feel like there’s a responsibility to ensure the league is a success,” Ainslie says. “Sailing has been crying out for a format like this - a league that is not only commercially viable but what it stands for in terms of sustainability and the environment.” The advantages of being a privately owned team are numerous, he says, pointing to the team’s increased autonomy over budgets and team recruitment, as well as increased feedback to the league ‘in terms of decisions that are made in how we grow the sport and league for the longer term’.
Key to this, Ainslie says, is a season calendar packed with more racing events, taking the schedule from an event ‘every six weeks’ to ‘every two weeks’. “How you do that logistically and with the number of teams is something that’s being looked at,” he says. He floats the suggestion of separate leagues in the ‘northern and southern hemisphere’ that ‘come together for the Grand Final’. “There are lots of concepts being thrown out there at the moment to make sure it’s logistically viable and sustainable,” he says.
He points to short gap between the France Sail Grand Prix and Spain Sail Grand Prix in September - a timetable set to be repeated in Season 3. “The fast turnaround between St Tropez and Cadiz proves that it’s certainly do-able,” he says. “The franchise ownership means we’re able to input into those plans and understand exactly where we’re headed in the future.”
The Great Britain Sail Grand Prix | Plymouth takes place from July 30-31.