SailGP CEO Russell Coutts gives his debrief on all the racing action from last month’s Great Britain Sail Grand Prix | Plymouth.
Plymouth was a fantastic event with plenty of tight racing. It was the first time we’ve had six teams in contention for a place in the Final and you can really see dramatic improvement across the fleet now. For me, the U.S. and Spain are the underperforming teams. Switzerland is a brand-new team so in some ways that team’s performance is to be expected...and acceptable for now.
Spain’s performance in Plymouth was not impressive, especially when you look at the rest of the fleet and see how much the other teams are improving. Obviously the team has a new driver and it’s always going to take time. But if the performance doesn’t improve over the next few events, it’s got to be a consideration for the team to move Diego Botin into the driver role and Jordi into flight control. Diego has just won the European 49er Championships with Florian Trittel and while Jordi is an excellent sailor and has won an Olympic bronze medal, his pedigree is in the 470 which is not really considered a high performance boat in my opinion. The team should be open-minded about the future arrangement of their crew because if you were any other team and you had the current 49er European Champions, you’d need rocks in your head to not be considering them for the primary afterguard positions on the boat.
When it comes to Jimmy Spithill and the American team, it’s clear that flight control problems were still an issue in Plymouth, but the team also made some really big tactical blunders. I don’t know how many more events they can keep sticking with this combination. They say that they need to stick with it and eventually it will come right, but how long is it going to take? They need to have two or three strong performances now to get back into contention. Besides that, Jimmy has to be looking to create depth in this squad. Sometimes athletes can look great in practice and seemingly have all the talent and the right attitude but when that's put under the white hot pressure of a race environment, for whatever reason they simply don’t perform. Going forward, that’s why he needs to develop a squad with some real depth to have more options.
The performance of the Danish team meanwhile definitely surprised and impressed me. I did not predict that they’d make the podium. They’re sailing the boat well and they’ve been contenders in every event this season so hats off to them. They’ve done well although they need to look hard at that final race where they had an enormous lead but then threw away both first and second place. On that final upwind leg, they really had only two choices, namely either go all the way to the port layline and approach the top mark gate with “Mark Room” protection or break back earlier to cover the Kiwis. Instead they did something in between and met the Kiwis in No Man’s Land, so they need to tidy up their tactics.
One of the biggest stories in Plymouth was the close cross between Great Britain and Australia at the end of the fifth fleet race. Ben Ainslie questioned the call, but it looked close enough to be a penalty in my opinion. The rules say you have to keep clear and keeping clear is more than missing - it’s allowing distance between the boats. In a situation like that, the onus is on the give-way boat to make sure they are “clear” and if there’s any question over that, the umpires are likely to penalise the give-way boat. Another option for Ben would have been to pass behind the Australians because the Australians still had to do one more gybe manoeuvre. If he’d done that, it would have eliminated the possibility of any penalty and given it was relatively light winds, the loss of speed of Australia’s gybe may have still allowed an opportunity for the British to win the race.
The British team’s performance also shows how important it is to have a good first day. They had poor starts on the first day by their own admission. They were better on the second day, but I still wouldn’t say it was up to Ben’s top performance. Generally, their starts have been strong this season, but as the other teams refine their techniques it is becoming harder and harder. Added to that, the final day was a very funky breeze and turned the reaching start into a downwind start. I thought the British were a little unlucky where their normally strong position in the last start turned into a very compromised position around 40 seconds to go which was too late for them to change plans. They actually then made an incredible comeback after that start until the final cross.
It was the opposite situation for Canada, who were nailing their starts on the first day. But on the second day, with the wind causing havoc in the start box they were never positioned to be in the lead group at Mark 1. I’ve heard Canada have been practicing their starts a lot in the simulator and perhaps that really showed on Saturday, but on Sunday they probably hadn’t ever practiced that situation where we had a broad reach or even run to Mark 1.
The French are also showing promise and, in my view, it won’t be long before we see them make it onto the podium. Their performance definitely showed a lot of promise in Plymouth and in some ways they look to be at a similar stage to the Danes. If they can tidy up a few of their positional errors they will begin to get results.
All nine teams will meet again at the ROCKWOOL Denmark Sail Grand Prix | Copenhagen, which takes place next week on August 19-20. Expect the change in venue to produce some different results. This far out it’s hard to know what the wind will be but day one looks to be light winds and we have none other than Nathan Outteridge back, this time driving the Swiss boat.
He will be out of practice having not competed in the first three events and he is with a new crew, but we all know how good Nathan can be, especially when it’s light and shifty. It will be interesting.