As the clock counts down to San Francisco SailGP, the tension is building as the reality of this weekend’s battle gets closer.
The emphasis on testing and training during the weeks since the opening event in Sydney has now shifted to dealing with the mounting pressure of racing as the fleet lines up to practice on one of the most challenging and notorious race venues in the world. The strong winds and tricky conditions that the area is famous for have put teams under pressure already.
The job lists have been long and challenging. Getting to grips with the new breed of potent foiling catamarans continues to see teams climb a very steep learning curve as they learn to handle the most advanced racing multihulls in the world.
Among the tasks, practicing how to perform flawless foiling jibe on demand has been just one of several key maneuvers that crews have been rehearsing over and over again. Figuring out how to achieve the same perfect flight through a tack has pushed them even further. From pulling the trigger at the start and accelerating off the line, to keeping the F50 on the boil around the marks of the course, the training program has been relentless.
Since Sydney there have also been some key changes to the boats. While most of them will be invisible to spectators, the knock on effect for the way in which the teams perform may well shine through.
“The most significant changes to the boat’s hardware are; the addition of a second hydraulic pump and a new flight controller system,” explains SailGP’s Head of Design Mike Drummond.
“The second pump gives additional capacity to maintain the hydraulic oil pressure that is required to control the foils. This in turn helps to improve the maneuverability of the boats.
“The flight control system is a new piece of kit that is more user friendly. It operates the same basic mechanics behind the scenes, but it is easier to use which helps with maintaining flight through key maneuvers.”
Here, the joystick that was originally fitted has been replaced by a rectangular unit the size of a small paperback book with a palm sized wheel on each end. The new system aims to make flying the F50 easier for the flight controller and therefore free up the helmsman to concentrate more on tactics. But there have been other tweaks to improve the system.
“We’ve also included some new hydraulic valves in the system which allows faster rake control of the boards which makes it easier to adjust how the boat flies above the water.
“We have implemented a number of software upgrades as well,” he continued. “Many are subtle changes, but the more significant ones include improving the rate of change when adjusting foils and achieving smoother transitions. Another is the way in which the T-foil rudders change the amount of lift they are developing as the boat turns through a tack or a jibe.”
All of which are aimed at making the boats both faster and easier to sail. And yet Drummond, who is a highly accomplished and decorated sailor himself, is the first to put these boats and the demands they place on the crews into perspective.
“Even with the modifications we’ve made, these boats are really difficult to handle, they require a high level of skill and reaction time. I don’t think I could sail them.”
For teams, learning how to do so has meant more time spent trawling through terabytes of data to assess their own performance and that of their competitors, as it has hours on the water to practice.
“The boats are constantly evolving, every day there are adjustments made to the coding data inside them, from how fast the boards move, to lots of little things that keep changing to make life easier for the sailors and make better racing,” said Emily Nagel, Great Britain SailGP Team’s data analyst.
“My job is to tell the guys how to get the most out of the boat. Until recently, only a couple of the teams had their own data analyst. Now, all the teams are spending a lot more time looking at each other trying to adjust their modes. If they haven't had much time on the water they can still look at other people's performances to get a much bigger set of data to look at and see what works in what wind conditions.
“A typical training day will see the team leave the dock at 11am and return around 3pm. During this time, they will go downwind for 5-6 minutes before they start to run out of space in the race area. Then they might stop, discuss the run and then go again. So you end up with lots of short runs over the course of four hours on the water.
“We normally have a debrief an hour after they come in and we look at the general picture for the day. In particular, we may be looking at our four best tacks, our four best jibes and compare these to some of the other boats out there.
“The crew may then bring up things that they want to further and I'll do that over the next few hours in the evening ready for the team briefing the following morning.”
Sometimes the analyst’s work involves solving bigger issues.
“We had a big nose dive the other day and the guys on board weren't really sure what had happened,” she continued. “So, I sat down with the system engineers and our helm and we went through the numbers and found out the cause of it. The problem involved issues that you can't see from onboard the boat, but once you look at the data you can figure it out, which we did.”
With only days to the next event, it will be soon be clear who is leading the skills arms race.