The ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch marks both the penultimate event of Season 3 and SailGP’s first visit to the country. As the season reaches its final stages, the stakes are higher than ever, with limited time for teams to cement their position in the top three and earn a place in San Francisco’s three-boat, winner-takes-all Grand Final. With just three points separating New Zealand in second and Emirates Great Britain SailGP Team in fourth, the waters of Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour are set to host a key season showdown. Amid the congested leaderboard and pressure to perform on home waters, New Zealand driver Peter Burling is ‘under no illusions’ that ‘winning is the main goal over the next two events’.
It comes as the team prepares to rebound from ‘two unlucky events’. Despite winning in Singapore, New Zealand’s F50, dubbed ‘Amokura’ by the team, was struck by lightning shortly after racing and sustained significant damage. With Amokura out of action and shipped to the SailGP Technologies facility for repair, the F50 fleet was reshuffled ahead of Sydney. New Zealand was handed Boat 6 - the F50 previously used by Japan and Canada - to race with instead. Even though the F50s are one-design, ‘they’re all subtly different’, Burling says. “It was unfamiliar territory going into Sydney knowing our normal boat was going back to New Zealand, but the team did an amazing job getting up and running ahead of the event’.
Despite this, the Kiwis experienced technical problems in the first fleet race when the starboard daggerboard jammed, forcing them to come to a complete standstill ‘for three or four minutes’. Eventually, the problem resolved itself and New Zealand resumed sailing. But by this stage, the Kiwis were so far behind that they were unable to catch the rest of the fleet and finished ninth overall. After that, Burling says, they ’struggled to find [their] rhythm’ for the rest of the day. “When you have a big issue with the boat, you lose confidence in the equipment, so you’re probably not sailing at 100%”, he says.
The team finished third and fourth in the final two races and were eagerly anticipating the second day of racing. But an extreme weather event, which caused significant damage to the fleet’s wing sails and Canada’s F50, meant they ‘never got that chance’, and finished the event in sixth overall. The uncharacteristic finish in the bottom half of the fleet also meant the team lost its crucial points buffer ahead of France in third, which was whittled down to a slim one-point lead. This means the Kiwis went from challenging Australia for first place to defending second from the French. These setbacks however mean the team is ‘even more motivated to get back into it’ at their long-awaited home event and ‘put an incredible show on for the fans in Christchurch’.
As part of their home event preparation, New Zealand has been raking over their recent performances, strategies and on board communication. “We’ve got a rigorous process of reviewing and making sure everything is improving at the same time so we’re not left with any weaknesses,” Burling explains. He points specifically to the team’s improvements racing with a reduced four-crew configuration. This particularly paid off in Singapore, when the team walked away with a win despite competing in tricky, light wind conditions. By contrast, racing in the ‘natural amphitheater’ of Whakaraupō, Lyttelton Harbour is likely to provide ‘a strong sea breeze’ which, if blown from offshore, could make it ‘a very dynamic place to sail’.
Much is made of the ‘home team advantage’ heading into events and while Burling is a seasoned sailor on North Island waters, he admits he hasn’t sailed in Lyttelton for a decade. Nonetheless, he’s excited to showcase New Zealand’s 'garden city' and bring ‘the world class event of SailGP to the natural amphitheater of Lyttelton Harbour’. The event is set to be even more ‘special’ he says, given the team has been waiting for a home event ‘for so long’ - the previously planned Season 2 fixture was called off due to Covid.
As the home team, New Zealand will also have to juggle various commitments, including ‘the opportunity to thank our sponsors for being with us on the journey’. But the team’s concentration will not waver from ‘the racing’. In these final two events of Season 3, New Zealand is ‘focused on going out there and winning’, Burling says. “With four boats going for those final three spots, it’s about giving yourself as big a margin as you can going into San Francisco,” he explains. “That means winning as much as you can.” The fight for the top three also poses the temptation to engage in mini match-races but this, Burling says, is to be avoided at all costs.
“You definitely don’t want to get caught up with one of the three boats and lose sight of the other two,” he says, “I’m sure everyone will be looking at each other pretty carefully.” Despite the team’s meticulous preparation ahead of the event, Burling is brutally honest about the outcome of the next two events. “We feel that if we’re not in the final, we probably don’t deserve to be there,” he says. “It’s just about making sure we put our best foot forward, get a few good results and hopefully win the season in San Francisco.”
The ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix | Christchurch will take place on March 18 & 19, with racing kicking off at 15:00 NZDT. Full broadcast information and How To Watch details are HERE.