The first of Season 4’s three back-to-back European events - the France Sail Grand Prix | Saint-Tropez - gets underway this weekend. Ahead of the event, SailGP CEO Russell Coutts reveals his behind-the-scenes insight of the fleet.
We’re in Saint-Tropez for the third consecutive season and the big news is the crew changes that have been made across the fleet and how this might affect performance.
The first big change was the French changing their flight controller. They poached Swiss flight controller Jason Saunders, while their former flight controller Francois Morvan has moved across to replace Saunders on the Swiss F50.
I can tell you now, you don’t just change one of your key sailors in the middle of the season unless you have a really good reason. In my opinion, something big must have happened between Quentin and Francois.
I didn’t see any glaring performance reason to make that change other than the disappointing results in the first two events of the season. Perhaps if they had taken Jason Waterhouse that might have been different, but I have my doubts that this flight control change will help them much. I hope I’m wrong because it would be great to see the French perform well here in St. Tropez. But if they don’t and the Swiss somehow come out on top, then that might feel pretty good to Francis Morvan!
Another interesting change has taken place on the New Zealand boat - they’re swapping out Liv Mackay with Jo Aleh in the strategist position. New Zealand is sitting 5th on the leaderboard right now, which isn’t the start they would have wanted this season. When asked, I’m sure they’ll say that both Mackay and Aleh are both equally as good as each other, but would they really be making this change now if they didn’t believe it was going to create better performance?
The Kiwis showed glimpses of brilliance during Season 3 and looked as if they might be taking over from the Australians. But let’s not forget, Kyle Langford was out for some of that time with a back injury which might have given Kiwi fans the false impression their team had caught up or even displaced the Aussies at the top. The fact of the matter is that for the last three events the Kiwis have looked pretty average - apart from the “drifting competition” on the second day of Chicago, which in my opinion wasn’t enough wind to gauge performance.
When it comes to Spain’s historic first victory in LA, a lot of us knew that team had the talent to be real contenders, but perhaps none of us thought they were at a stage to actually win. However, win they did, and pretty convincingly in the end.
Maybe the win was unexpected, but as Tom Slingsby said to me, ‘they were beginning to look pretty smooth in the way they were sailing the boat’. I guess we’ll see if they can continue that great performance this weekend, but there’s a growing confidence they’ll be able to stay near the top of the leaderboard.
One only has to look at the performance of Spithill and Ainslie to see how important having that ‘inner confidence’ is, especially in SailGP where things are happening really fast and you’re heavily punished for any small error of judgment or indecision. One misplaced tack or jibe, or one small error in flying the boat (either helm, wing trim or flight control), can be terminal.
Having said that, I’d like to see both Spithill and Ainslie get back their mojo. I’ve no doubt they still have all the skills, but it’s getting more and more difficult for them now this next generation of top talent is emerging and growing in confidence. There’s no doubt that these new sailors are rapidly becoming the new stars of the sailing world. Who would have predicted that Spain, Denmark and Canada would all be ahead of New Zealand and Great Britain?
I expect we’ll see more and more young sailors coming into this league over the next two seasons. I know we are expecting a visit from top 49er sailor, Bart Lambriex this weekend and I imagine talented sailors like him are itching to get in and mix it up with these guys, perhaps after the next Olympics. I also can’t wait for the day when one of our top female sailors drives a boat to victory in SailGP. Imagine the impact and inspiration that will have on all the young female sailors out there. Hopefully we’ll get to see that happen sometime over the next few seasons.
We have light winds forecast for this weekend’s racing in Saint-Tropez, which means the F50s will almost certainly be racing with the 29m wing and light-air foil configuration - we could even drop down to reduced crew members on board. The trend here for a light thermal breeze in St. Tropez is for the wind to build from the east (aligned with the inner bay) and then shift right to a south east direction over the period of a few hours. The complication is that once the breeze shifts right, it becomes patchy, which is more influenced by the topography of Saint-Tropez.
So one wants to favor the right (when sailing upwind) for the windshift, once the breeze starts to veer, but, by contradiction, the left can temporarily have more pressure. Downwind should (in theory) be a little more straight forward, but judging the layline into the bottom mark gate with wind that’s veering right could also present challenges - a double jibe definitely isn’t desirable!
It’s another tricky course where crews will be balancing the anticipated right shift against the likelihood of being caught in a hole - definitely a venue where the strategists could play a very important role.
The France Sail Grand Prix takes place on September 9-10, with racing scheduled between 1.30-3pm CEST. Full broadcast information and How To Watch details are HERE.