The Great Britain Sail Grand Prix | Plymouth kicks off today (July 30) with SailGP’s nine turbo-charged hydro-foiling F50s taking to the waters of Plymouth Sound. Ahead of the third event of Season 3, SailGP CEO Russell Coutts reveals his behind-the-scenes insights of the fleet.
We’re in Plymouth which is one of the best venues for fans to have an elevated view of the racecourse - spectators almost have a helicopter view from the top of the Hoe. You can really take in the whole scene of the racecourse and see how quickly the F50s are moving from A to B.
In Chicago, it was all about the boats sailing faster in freshwater but here the crews will be looking at the wind and current variations, which change during the day - the current will definitely factor into the thinking here and may mean that one side of the course could be favoured. If that proves to be the case then it will put a premium on starting because the leaders obviously get first pick as to where to go.
Heading into racing, it’s hard to forget the disastrous performance of the U.S. team in Chicago. In the press conference, Jimmy Spithill’s response was 'professional' when he was asked if he would change his line-up if the performance doesn’t improve here in Plymouth. He’s sticking with flight controller Hans Henken for this event despite the flight control issues in Chicago and said he isn’t thinking beyond Plymouth because he wants to focus on the present. But Henken’s days must be limited if they keep finishing at the back of the fleet. I know there were other factors in Chicago that didn’t go their way, aside from Hans. They opted to use software that no other boat was using and although it had apparently looked promising in practice it ended up making the boat harder to sail in the manoeuvres. Then when things started to go wrong in the first races on day one, things appeared to go from bad to worse.
Yet you can’t just blame the flight controller. For example, you can see that Chris Draper has a huge influence on the Canadian boat, not only with his experience but with his communication and ability to “paint the picture” for flight controller Billy Gooderham. Similarly if you listen to the comms on the Australian boat, wing trimmer Kyle Langford is constantly feeding really useful information that flight controller Jason Waterhouse can key off. There is a lot of pressure on the U.S. team in Plymouth and although Spithill would never say this publicly, if they made the top half of the fleet here in Plymouth I suspect they would treat that as a win.
Elsewhere, Jo Aleh has joined the New Zealand team as strategist and will also no doubt be helping Pete Burling with tactics and information around the racecourse. Aleh is a former New Zealand junior national champion, world champion, Olympic gold and silver medallist - so if they can use her wisely, her expertise at the back of the boat could prove hugely beneficial and provide a real uplift in consistency and performance. In terms of ability, I would place Jo Aleh alongside Hannah Mills - right at the top.
Canada is a team that has proved the merit of the strategist role. From the beginning they’ve built the team as a six person team whereas some of the other teams have not really used their female athlete as effectively. However, Georgia Lewin LaFrance will not be racing in Plymouth. Instead, Isabella Bertold is coming in after spending two days on the simulator which Chris Draper said went really well. But in my opinion, Lewin La France has been a significant contributor to Canada’s success and the question is whether the team can maintain that form without her. It’s a big change and I’m therefore not picking them to make the podium in this event.
Former Japan driver Nathan Outteridge has reappeared in Plymouth in the position of sailing advisor to Switzerland. It’s not clear yet if this is a one off or if Outteridge’s involvement will be longer term but I think he will have a massive impact on the Swiss team - although perhaps not immediately because it will likely take a bit of time for his influence to take effect. He joined the team in the position of sixth sailor in practice and obviously brings a huge amount of expertise and experience to fast-track their development.
Over on the Spanish team, it’s hard not to be impressed by the combination of Diego Botin and Florian Trittel, who are the new European Champions in the 49er (they’ve only just started sailing together in the 49er). That performance really impressed the sailing world and a question is rising about whether Botin could be an option for stepping into the driver role. To be fair, it was always going to take some time for Jordi Xammer to get to grips with driving an F50.
But you cannot ignore the fact that since Phil’s departure they haven’t looked like contending for the podium. Hopefully we will begin to see better results over the next two or three events but if not, in my view the team should be open minded about how they make up the afterguard and Jordi and Diego switching roles could be an option.
Finally, I expect Ben Ainslie’s Great Britain team to do well here in Plymouth. They are the home favourites, they’re in good form and significant ticket sales means Plymouth could see the biggest onshore crowd so far at a SailGP event, so he will have a lot of motivation to do well. Ainslie won’t want to let them down and we’ve all seen over many years that he knows how to win when it counts.
My prediction for the three teams to make the podium are Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. So far this season Ben has not started well in the podium race but I’m expecting he’ll get that sorted if he makes the podium here in Plymouth so I’m picking Great Britain to win the final.