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Prada Cup Final: Italians look quick on day one

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli win both opening races in the Prada Cup Final and look to have a boatspeed edge over their rival, INOES Team UK

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli won both opening races against INEOS Team UK on the first day of racing in the Prada Cup Final on the Waitematā Harbour in Auckland, as both teams fight for the chance to sail in the America’s Cup.

From the moment these America’s Cup boats, the AC75s, arrived in Auckland the speculation of which team had the fastest boat began. It was quickly widely felt Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli had a boat designed for – and so quicker in – the lighter wind ranges. Today, that speculation looks to have been proven with the Italian outfit looking ominously strong in the winds which slowly built from around 7 knots into the teens by close of racing.

There will certainly be some head scratching in the British camp as the team that have so far proved unbeatable lost two races in a row and, in truth, never looked likely to challenge Luna Rossa for either win.

INEOS Team UK look on as Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli foil off into the distance. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

The first race of the day can be put down to a single moment, with around one minute until the start in extremely light weather, INEOS Team UK just dropped off their foils. For their part Luna Rossa briefly touched down on their way back to the startline but just about managed to keep enough speed to remain foiling. “We had a very scary moment and everyone screamed at Jimmy [Spithill] ‘don’t come up,’” explained Francesco Bruni who shares helming duties with Jimmy Spithill from tack-to-tack. “He was trying to kill a bit of time [to ensure the boat is behind the line at the start] and we just managed to stay up. It is a split second thing and if you get it wrong you drop off [the foil].”

In previous races when we have seen one team drop off their foils there have been opportunities to come from behind as an unstable breeze would make either team foiling throughout the race far from a certainty. However, with a building sea breeze by the end of the first leg the wind was strong enough to remove any question that the teams might not stay on their foils from the equation.

Given the change in conditions there was little the Brits could do to get back into a race which saw them 1 minute 20 seconds behind by the first mark rounding.

Prada Cup Final improvements for Luna Rossa

If the day had ended there, then the Brits might have felt okay about their performance. One unlucky moment handed the race to Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. In a first-to-seven-wins series this is not ideal but far from a disaster.

But it is the second race of the day that will have Sir Ben Ainslie and his crew worried.

Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

The British team got the better of the start in the second race, leading back to the startline and getting their timing just right to start the race slightly to leeward of the Italians. Had the gap to windward been smaller it would have been a controlling spot for Luna Rossa as both teams headed towards the port boundary. But the Brits had managed to keep it just close enough to squeeze the windward boat and force them to tack away early.

However, at the first cross the Italians (on starboard) forced the Brits to duck them and by the cross after that were a couple of lengths clear.

Article continues below…

To date Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli has always looked strong upwind and it seemed like they had found a strong high mode when they raced against American Magic in the Prada Cup Semi-Final. This upwind speed was on display again today for the first races in the Prada Cup Final as INEOS slipped back over the course of the first beat.

In the two weeks that have elapsed since their last race, Luna Rossa has made some visible changes and they look to have improved their aerodynamics on the boat.

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli have improve their aerodynamic fairings around the crew positions. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

Perhaps it was this aerodynamic improvement, perhaps it was the significant depth the team is able to get into their mainsail with their boomless setup (INEOS have a more traditional solid boom), but one way or another, when the teams turned downwind Luna Rossa looked, if not fully faster, certainly a match for the British outfit.

This will be a worry for the Brits as they had looked stronger than the Italians in most races they had sailed together on the downwinds.

A boat speed race

Much has been made of the differing approaches to how these two teams sail their boat. On the one hand you have Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli who sail with two helmsmen, Spithill steering on starboard, Bruni on Port, both sharing that role and the role of tactician – with input from mainsail trimmer Pietro Sibello. On the other hand, the Brits have a more traditional setup with Ainslie helming and Giles Scott providing a dedicated tactician role.

So far we have seen the British setup working well and they have managed to out sail their competition. But today’s racing took place on one of the course areas further out to sea, surrounded by less land mass and so with fewer opportunities to make tactical gains. “It was a pretty steady breeze so it is a bit more of a drag race,” explained Ainslie at the end of racing. “Luna Rossa sailed very well to get ahead and once one team is in front, then it is hard to get past. On the inner courses there [are] more shifts so it can be easier to get back into it.”

INEOS Team UK managed to force the Italians to tack off after the start of race 2 but never managed to capitalise on their slight advantage. Photo: COR 36 / Studio Borlenghi

With their main advantage over the other teams so far – their tactical nous – negated and seemingly lacking some pace both upwind and downwind it was not a day that the British team will look back on happily.

Worse, tomorrow looks to be more of the same with the forecast also for light winds. It would not take much more breeze to change things and a different course could suit the British team but it is not the start they would have wanted.

With two more races tomorrow, it is vital the Brits find at least one victory. To be two races down at this stage is not ideal but if they were to leave the weekend without a single victory it would be a very hard pill to swallow indeed.

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