After months of planning, testing and training, the moment finally came when the six F50’s could be unleashed on Sydney Harbour. Over two days, six races took place in front of a spectacular crowd who turned up to see if their local home grown talent could win in their own back yard. They weren’t disappointed, here’s how they did it;
There were high hopes and bold talk among the teams in the build up to the opening SailGP event in Sydney, yet in reality there was little data to support a form guide. While teams had been training afloat and in the full scale simulator in the UK, all the sailors knew that when the racing was under way and the pressure fully on, individual performances would step up a gear.
What little pre-race intelligence there was pointed to two teams as potential favourites, the local Australian team led by Tom Slingsby and Japan skippered by Nathan Outteridge. In the opening race 50% of that prediction was delivered following Outteridge’s text book performance and his team’s masterclass in boat handling.
Before the bottom leg on the first lap, Japan had taken the lead and never looked back. Their keys to success? Boat handling and breeze spotting.
Even just from the first of the three races it was clear to see that in the light and patchy breeze of 5-9 knots, keeping the boat flying was crucial. On several occasions there were examples of boats slicing along at 20+knots while others were struggling to find sufficient breeze to accelerate out of single figures.
Such differences in speed between foiling and displacement modes can open and close dramatically. This meant that the overriding tactic in such changeable conditions was to get to the breeze, irrespective of whether it was a benefitting shift or not. As the old adage goes, boat speed makes you a tactical genius.
Japan’s ability to sniff out the breeze, along with their impressive accuracy in predicting where it would come from next were key ingredients in their success in the opening race.
The second critical skill was their ability to make the most of the breeze when they had it. Keeping the boat on its foils keeps the speed into the 20s. High boat speed means higher apparent wind speeds - the two feed off each other. But this was easier said than done.
Maintaining flight through tacks and gybes is a skill that requires talent and time on the water. Outteridge has both in abundance. As the chief test pilot for the F50’s during their development he has had more time at the wheel with the F50’s than any other skipper.
But Japan didn’t hold all the cards. At times some of the finer details of their tactical play seemed rather less polished, such as their starts which were not always the best.
But the first race was only one of five fleet races with the match race finale taking the total tally to six. Drawing firm conclusions based on the opening race in tricky conditions was risky.
Race 2 proved this. Great Britain and Australia came flying off the start line to take an early lead at the first mark. By Gate 2 Australia had taken the lead and were in no mood to hand it back as they stretched their winning margin throughout the race.
In a sailing style that mirrored that of the Japanese team in the opening race, Australia’s tactic appeared to be to make sure they were always in the breeze while predicting where the next puff would come from.
This was to prove a crucial strategy for all the teams across both day’s racing. From choosing a gate mark, to boat on boat tactics, there were some pretty late calls required as the prevailing conditions forced teams’ hands. Those that got the calls consistently correct reaped big benefits. But being able to turn corners quickly and efficiently was also essential to achieve this and it was the success or otherwise of these snap manoeuvres that were contributing to the finishing order of the fleet.
Also of note in this race was Outteridge’s comeback to take second after a difficult start.
Race 3 saw Australia deliver another pitch perfect performance as if working to the winning template of the race before. Heading into the first mark at 30 knots while the back markers were struggling to pull the trigger, presented an early opportunity for Slingsby’s team. By the end of the race a pecking order was starting to appear as Japan finished second and Great Britain third.
Race 4-5: 10-12 knots
Race 6: 7-9 knots
With two fleet races and one match race in store for the final day, Australia had closed the overall points gap on the leaders Japan to just one point. Slingsby’s team had gone into sailing’s half time on a roll, but could they maintain the momentum?
Race 5 made it clear that they could. In a closely fought tussle with Great Britain off the start line, Australia got their nose ahead on the drag race to the first mark allowing Slingsby’s team to call the shots on the first downwind leg.
Once again they read the breeze perfectly and minimised the number of speed sapping manoeuvres that were necessary to get through the bottom gate.
This efficient and skilful opening gambit set the team up well once again to cope with the snakes and ladders on the race course caused by the puffy conditions.
While the breeze was stronger than on the previous day, it was only by a notch and required the same tactical approach where anticipating the breeze and delivering smooth manoeuvres were key.
Outteridge’s team delivered a similar performance to overtake Dylan Fletcher’s Great Britain by the finish, creating a sufficiently wide points gap to deliver the Japanese team a place against Australia in the match race final with a race to spare.
Yet, when Race 6 came along none of the teams were taking their foot off the gas.
Australia delivered another perfect performance to take a win, despite their worst start of the event and China showed promise crossing the line second.
Match Race Final
Race 7: 7-10 knots
Final winning delta: 0:37:04
Match racing requires a different tactical approach. Time and speed don’t matter so long as you beat your opponent across the finishing line.
The previous fleet racing had illustrated how crucial the start was in delivering an early advantage. Getting caught up in traffic among the six boat fleet proved very costly for some. But in the match racing final, pre-start traffic was not an issue.
Instead, the skill and dexterity of the two teams was on display as their cat and mouse act played out to timed perfection when the start gun was fired. Australia had the tactical edge on the short drag race to the first mark. Starting to leeward of Japan, Slingsby’s team was able to luff Japan before the first mark, who under the rules needed to keep clear and hold them out before the turn down onto leg 2.
The classic match racing tactic paid off and delivered enough of an advantage for Australia to choose their path the race boundary, gybe in the breeze and take the efficient route to the bottom gate.
Japan was never going to beat them by following and were forced to gybe early to try a different roll of the dice. The tactic didn’t work leaving Australia with a slightly more comfortable buffer which they were able to develop as the race played out.
Overall, the two-day event had illustrated both the importance of being able to read and predict slight changes in wind strength when travelling at high speed while underlining the importance of being able to turn corners efficiently at the drop of a hat.
Easy to say, very difficult to do.