Ahead of France's San Francisco showdown with Emirates Team GBR, coach Thierry Douillard debriefs the season so far and explains why the team is 'absolutely not afraid' to meet Ben Ainslie's crew on the battlefield.
France raised eyebrows at the start of Season 3 when the team announced its intention to secure a spot in the three-boat, winner-takes-all Grand Final in San Francisco. It was quite an ambition for the young team, especially since Quentin Delapierre had just three events under his belt as driver, resulting in a 8-7-7 race record. But 10 events later, with just the season finale to go, the French are exactly where they said they’d be - in third position overall and in prime position to enter the Championship-deciding shootout.
This position, and France’s status as one of the top teams in the league, has been gained gradually, coach Thierry Douillard says, ‘race by race, event by event’. The signing of wing trimmer Kevin Peponnet at the start of the season was key, and meant the boat was all-French speaking for the first time. He joined an otherwise established line-up, with flight controller François Morvan, grinders Matthieu Vandame, Timothé Lapauw and Olivier Herlédant involved with the circuit since Season 1. “I knew on the first day in Bermuda that we had a good group,” Douillard says.
The team’s rising trajectory and consistently improving on-water performances have come gradually. The first milestone was the team’s first race win in Chicago and a fifth place overall. At the next event in Plymouth, the team put together a consistent performance to finish fifth for a second time. In Copenhagen, the team secured its first place in a Final, finishing second overall.
But France’s fourth place finish in Saint-Tropez, which previously would have been met with celebration, resulted in a ‘bad mood’. The team, which had set its ambitious intention early on, now expected more. In Cadiz, the breakthrough came, with France’s first event win - a feat even more impressive given the reduced four crew configuration. “When we won in Cadiz, it wasn’t like we were coming from way behind,” Douillard explains. “It was a long process, but we knew that by working hard and everything coming together, we would be able to achieve our goal.”
From there on in, the team’s momentum continued, with a second place finish in Dubai and a first place finish in Sydney after one day of fleet racing. While Douillard says he is ‘proud’ of how far the team has come this season, he’s emphatic that ‘it’s not enough’. “We definitely want to reach the Final.” But there’s just one problem.
Coming into San Francisco, France is just one-point ahead of Emirates Team GBR. Despite not winning an event yet this season, consistent results from Ben Ainslie’s crew has kept them breathing down the necks of the French throughout recent events. The British crew now pose the biggest threat of replacing France in the top three, setting the stage for a fierce showdown between the two teams in the fight to reach the Grand Final. But for Douillard, it’s not this simple.
While he agrees that the fight for third will be ‘between us and Emirates Team GBR’, he is mindful that ‘anything could happen’. “You could have damage or lose points, so it will be a priority for us to sail smart and have good starts,” he says. While the team is well aware that ‘Ben will be there’, France’s strategy will not be solely focused on neutralizing the threat of the British boat. “We are racing against eight other boats and it’s about finding the right balance between racing smart and getting every point we can between Emirates Team GBR and us,” he says. He adds that the ‘biggest mistake the team could make’ is arriving in San Francisco and ‘just watching Emirates Team GBR’. “We know that all the other teams want to win the San Francisco event because that’s the best way to finish the season and the best way to prepare for Season 4.”
Despite this, he emphasizes that the team is ‘very excited and absolutely not afraid’ in expectation of match racing tactics from Ainslie’s crew. A glimpse of these tactics was seen in Christchurch’s fifth fleet race when the British F50 maneuvered to push France down the start line. The move didn’t pay off for the British and cost both boats a good start. “We know that Ben will be aggressive like he was in the last start in Christchurch,” Douillard says, “but at the end of the day, he didn’t reach the Final of that event and maybe it wasn’t a good move.”
With less than a week to go, Douillard anticipates an exuberant tussle between the two teams when they come together in San Francisco, but remains upbeat about the team’s chances. “It’s a good opportunity to play the game with the best guy in the world,” he says, “we want to fight again and again and we’re happy to fight for that final position on Sunday afternoon.”
The Mubadala Season 3 Grand Final | San Francisco takes place on May 6-7, with racing kicking off at 2.30pm PDT. Full broadcast information and How To Watch details are HERE. Ticket and event information is HERE.