The KPMG Australia Sail Grand Prix | Sydney kicks off on February 18. Ahead of the event, SailGP CEO Russell Coutts reveals his behind-the-scenes insight of the fleet.
We’re in Sydney and the big news this event is the changes in the Spanish team. Diego Botin is taking over the driver position and James Wierzbowski is coming in on flight control. Diego is a highly regarded sailor - he and Florian Trittel (wing trimmer) are ranked right up there with the best in the 49er Class so Diego definitely has the credentials in high performance boats to do well.
Top sailors from the 49er class have done well in SailGP and we are hoping that’s the case for Diego, although I wouldn’t expect any miracles in the first events - it’s a very steep learning curve, but they’re a very talented team so it will be interesting to see how they go. Perhaps the biggest skill Diego will have to learn is how to lead a large team, which is different to what he’s been used to until now. I guess we’ll see!
Elsewhere, there’s been a reshuffling of the F50s. The Canadians have a new boat - which they’re pretty happy about. In many ways perhaps they’re the only ones that benefited from the lightning strike on New Zealand in Singapore. As fate would have it, New Zealand will now be racing in Canada’s previous F50 for the next two events. That’s going to be some sort of change for them - even though the boats are identical, every boat has its quirks. If things go well, it won’t play on their minds. But if things don’t go well, it could be a factor that others will exploit.
Australia meanwhile has wing trimmer Kyle Langford back - he was absent in Singapore due to a back injury. That will make a massive difference and take them back to full strength again. When you look at the leaderboard, Australia is 15 points clear of the French in fourth. In my book, that means the Australians have booked their place in the San Francisco Season Grand Final because to lose their spot they would have to finish five places behind the French in each of the next three events. So barring a major collision or similar that might rule the boat out of the next event, their position seems secure.
Then when you look at New Zealand in second, they would have to finish (on average) two places behind France for the next three events to lose out on a place in the Final - it’s possible, but probably unlikely. Therefore the really close competition for the third spot is with Emirates Team GBR, France and Denmark all within three points. Canada meanwhile is nine points back from Emirates Team GBR, so it’s a big ask for them to make it into the top three.
Another big talking point is the underperformance of the United States this season. In Season 2, they were the most consistent team, yet they’ve really struggled this season. I think a lot of that is down to Jimmy Spithill - with the exception of St Tropez, he hasn’t sailed well all season. He hasn’t got off the start line well and the team just hasn’t gelled for a two day weekend. They’ve had good days, but they haven’t been able to put two consistent days together.
He’s the leader of the team so the buck stops there. He tried Hans Henken, he went back to Rome Kirby in Singapore and so far the right chemistry just hasn’t been achieved. Jimmy claims there isn’t a lot of depth in the United States and that may be true - but by the same token, they were one of the most consistent teams last season and yet this season they’ve had a series of mishaps. I also haven’t yet seen a lot of effort to blood younger talent where it appears and the U.S. has some exciting real talent progressing through the youth classes.
I don’t think they’ve got any chance of making the Season Final in San Francisco and Jimmy won’t admit this, but I suspect they’re now focusing on putting some results together to build confidence for Season 4. It’s going to be interesting to see if Jimmy can dig himself out of this hole and get back to being competitive again because age is not on his side.
One of the main reasons we set up SailGP was to provide a consistent platform that allowed this kind of long term investment which other sports take for granted. There are other significant agreements that have been signed with announcements being planned which is very encouraging for the long term viability of our sport.
Sydney’s forecast is for pretty spicy wind conditions on Saturday - between 30-40 km/h so the nine F50s will really be flying around the racecourse.
Racing takes place in Sydney between 16:00-17:30 AEDT on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets to the KPMG Australia Sail Grand Prix | Sydney are available HERE. Full broadcast information and How To Watch details are HERE.