Emirates Great Britain driver Ben Ainslie gives a blow by blow account of racing in Saint-Tropez, which saw the British beat the Aussies and Spanish to pick up their first event win since Season 2.
Heading into Saint-Tropez
We were frustrated following Chicago and LA. Normally we go into each event targeting a top three but we struggled for a couple of different reasons at both those events. We came into Saint-Tropez really feeling like we really needed to turn it around and felt more settled because it was a European event.
Practice Race Day
Despite the good vibes on board, we had a bad practice day. Our communication wasn’t that good and we made a few mistakes. We had a hard look at ourselves in the debrief and our coach Rob Wilson did a great job of just settling things down a bit and simplifying the communication and boat handling. It felt like we were in a much better place and taking a step forwards when we started racing on Saturday.
Race Day 1
We had a good first race and finished in 2nd. We were trying a different starting approach which was working well for us in being more consistent at getting off the start line in good shape. But in the second race we had a couple of costly errors halfway through, which put us down towards the back of the fleet and we finished 8th. That was frustrating, but we regrouped well and finished 3rd in the last fleet race of the day. That put us into 4th place overall, setting us up well for Sunday. We were right in the mix and went into the second day knowing we needed to perform, but that was the same for everyone.
Race Day 1 ended dramatically with the collapse of the New Zealand wing. Firstly that was really disappointing and we really felt for the Kiwis. We also rely heavily on that 29m wing, but I’m sure the Tech Team will figure out why it failed and resolve the issue for the use of that wing going forwards. But heading into Sunday, we knew that the Kiwis weren’t going to be racing. The Canadians also had a big incident on Saturday and took an 8 point penalty, so that took them out of contention as well. That meant that two of the big teams fell by the wayside - opening the door to other teams. Having said that, the quality is so high across the fleet now that you can’t say one team is weaker than another. They’re all a real threat.
Race Day 2
We had a decent start in the fourth fleet race and our strategist Hannah Mills did a great job finding breeze on the course. We cut a few corners and sailed less distance and made some good gains on the Canadians, who were in the lead. Canada then fell off the foils and we had a nice lead for the second half and finished that race in 1st. In the final fleet race, we got our approach to the start line a bit wrong and struggled. We were mid-fleet but got into our rhythm quite well and did a reasonable job of sailing the fleet - coming through with a 3rd.
The three-boat Final is different from a full 10-boat fleet race and the more you’ve done of those Finals, the more you learn and figure out for the next time.
It was a pretty even start, although the Aussies got the leeward side and were able to hold onto that at Mark 1, which put them in the lead. We were really trying to be patient in the shifty conditions and wait for an opportunity to pass the Aussies, while also keeping an eye on the Spanish to avoid losing ground to them.
It’s difficult not to get disheartened when you see a team stretching ahead with a good lead, but you’re also thinking you need to do something, otherwise you're just going to follow them to the finish. At the same time, you can’t roll the dice unless you’re reasonably certain it might work.
We did a reasonable job at the end of the upwind leg and closed down a lot of distance, which got us back into the race. Then the trick was how to engineer a split at the bottom gate. We had that opportunity and it was a no-brainer to go for that split and hope we’d get something out of that right hand side. That created an opportunity for us. It was a difficult one for the Australians to defend in those shifty conditions, but we did a good job getting the split - it went our way but at the same time, we made the most of it.
We stayed focused after we passed the Aussies because the breeze was so up and down, but that was really the moment, which I guess is why I got so animated with the hand signals - I was trying to get the umpires to agree with us. We were delighted to cross the finish line, but also all of us on board felt it had been too long. People talk about momentum being a big deal in sport and I hope that’s the case with us now. I hope we can have more confidence, move forward and make the most of the potential that we have in the team.
The F50 fleet will next meet for battle at the ROCKWOOL Italy Sail Grand Prix in Taranto on September 23-24.