In September 2013 in San Francisco, a US team won the 162-year-old America’s Cup for the 29th time in 34 matches. Yet to some, the victory had been British.
With a medal tally of four gold and one silver (as well as his 11 World and nine European titles), Ben Ainslie was already the most successful Olympic sailor. But as tactician for the winners, Oracle Team USA, he now had an America’s Cup title to add to his list.
In the first-to-nine-wins series, Oracle Team USA had clawed their way back from the brink when they trailed 8:1 behind their competitors, Emirates Team New Zealand. The home-team victory to retain one of the oldest trophies in international sport had been a breathtaking comeback and arguably one of the most impressive in sporting history. Ainslie was seen by many as the catalyst to this success, after the team replaced their talented and experienced local tactician John Kostecki for the British Olympic star when they were 4:1 down. (The team also carried two penalty points for a pre-series transgression, effectively placing them at a 6:1 deficit.)
Yet the turnaround didn’t come immediately: it took two more losses before the American team found their feet. When they did, the recovery was spectacular. With no margin for error, each race that Ainslie’s team won drew more and more British interest in the America’s Cup. As the scoreline reached 8:8, national support was at fever pitch. Ainslie could undoubtedly take some of the credit for an American victory, but in the months that followed, his success sparked an even more ambitious project: a British America’s Cup challenge.
From the first race in 1851, when the Royal Yacht Squadron set up the £100 Cup (from which the America’s Cup was subsequently born) to coincide with the Great Exhibition, Britain began a sustained losing streak in its attempt to win the trophy. Despite almost 20 attempts by some of the wealthiest, most capable and determined backers, the country has never succeeded in 164 years of trying. In that time, an unbroken string of successful defences by the Americans marked a 132-year-long winning streak. Everything changed with Australia’s historic win in 1983, which opened the eyes of the world to the commercial potential of the Cup. From then on, it has proved highly seductive to the many individuals and companies that have funded both challenging and defending teams.
Another game changer has been the design of the boats themselves. Conventional monohulls with ballasted keels have given way to lightweight catamarans with wing sails and hydrofoils that rise out of the water and fly above the surface at close to 50 knots (57mph) – like Ainslie’s current vessel.
As one designer put it: “It took 100 years for the typical boat speed of an America’s Cup yacht to increase from around 10 knots (11.5mph) to around 12 knots (14mph). In the past 15 years, speeds have quadrupled.”
There have been big changes too when it comes to the venues. In a departure from tradition, the event is no longer necessarily held in the home waters of the winning team’s yacht club. The next America’s Cup will be in Bermuda in 2017. That the 35th America’s Cup will be held in British territorial waters counts as little more than a coincidence to Ainslie’s team. And yet it is widely acknowledged by aficionados that this Cup cycle is the best chance Britain has ever had.
So does Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) stand a greater chance than any previous British campaign?
“He is the greatest sailor of a generation; if it’s ever, it’s now,” says businessman and sailing enthusiast Charles Dunstone, chairman of Dixons Carphone and the TalkTalk Group and one of the founding shareholders of BAR. He is also the BAR chairman, heading up an impressive list of board members, including Michael Grade.
The former chairman of the BBC and executive chairman of ITV is equally bullish when it comes to answering “why now?” “Ben,” Grade says. “It’s as simple as that. The UK has produced half a dozen or so world-class sporting heroes: Nick Faldo, Graham Gooch, Steve Redgrave, Lewis Hamilton. Ben Ainslie is now one of those British sporting heroes. He has the credentials, the drive and people believe in him – that’s exciting.”
So too is the rapid growth of the team, which now counts 85 people in its ranks and a newly completed futuristic, government-backed team base and technology centre in the heart of Old Portsmouth. In one year since the official announcement, the British America’s Cup team has grown beyond anything the country has delivered before. The momentum has even gained royal support from the Duchess of Cambridge, who is patron of the 1851 Trust, which in turn is supported by BAR to “inspire and engage a new generation through sailing and the marine industry”.
And so what started out as a campaign based on the competitive abilities of the country’s top sailor has expanded dramatically, changing Ainslie’s role in the process. “My job has changed in that my primary focus is now to help set the direction of the team,” says Ainslie. “But it’s not as different as people may think. Even though I’ve been a single-handed sailor, there was a big team behind me during my Olympic campaigns, maybe not as big as this one, but the principles are the same. I also learnt a lot about team dynamics from the various other teams I have sailed with.”
Indeed, Ainslie’s Cup career stretches back to 2002, sailing with the American OneWorld syndicate, before moving to Emirates Team New Zealand for the following 2004-7 Cup cycle. After that he was involved with a British campaign, TeamOrigin, launched in 2007 and backed by BAR founding shareholders Keith Mills and Charles Dunstone. Ainslie’s most recent Cup commitment was then his tactician role for Oracle Team USA.
Combined with his first-hand knowledge of how campaigns can be run, Ainslie’s ability on the water remains his greatest skill. But as the team leader, he needs a stellar crew to cover all his other duties. “Across the board we were trying to hire people who have won the Cup before,” he says. “But it is also important that this team not be a one-hit wonder; we need to build a team and an event that can sustain themselves.
“It was also clear to me from the lessons I learnt with Oracle that control systems would be pivotal in the development of modern America’s Cup boats,” he says. “Aerodynamics play a huge part too, so motorsport was a natural choice for technology partnerships. I have a good relationship with a number of people in this area, including Adrian Newey from Formula One, who will be working with us as a consultant, and which led us to hiring Martin Whitmarsh from McLaren. Martin’s appointment means I will be able to focus more on the sailing side of our campaign.”
The new role Whitmarsh has as CEO of BAR is not only key when it comes to providing links to the advanced technology that will be required, but includes a vision to take the team further and develop a sustainable commercial future. “During my 25 years at McLaren, we developed from a business with fewer than 100 people with a turnover of £19m to more than 3,000 with a turnover of over £650m,” he says. “I have been brought into BAR to help create similar growth.”
At McLaren Automotive, this meant helping to set up an Applied Technologies division that provided a means to sell technologies developed on the racetrack into other areas of the sport and beyond. From telemetry systems to racecar electronics, these commercial activities contributed to the McLaren group turning a profit. The plan is that with Whitmarsh’s input, yacht racing will be able to do something similar, developing technologies that have commercial value beyond the sport. “Competition is a hotbed for development,” says Whitmarsh. “In a large organisation it can be challenging to create an arena for innovation, but the America’s Cup is a fantastic platform from which this team can demonstrate its capability in high technology and performance. It’s our job to ensure that we can capture the essence of racing culture, tempo, speed of response, competitiveness and creativity. Those are things that are being searched for and worked hard for in big technical organisations. We have them, and that’s a valuable asset.”
For the commercial world to sit up and take note though, the sport needs to have a higher profile. Until recently, creating a spectator event out of sailing had proved challenging at best, but the last America’s Cup and the 2012 Olympics events in Weymouth have helped turn the tide.
Founding shareholder in BAR Keith Mills, another enthusiastic sailor and the former deputy chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), knows plenty about the spectator appeal of sports and how to put on a show. His most recent success was the organisation of last year’s Invictus Games, and his focus now is on hosting the first event of the America’s Cup World Series, a preamble to the America’s Cup, in Portsmouth on July 23-26 this year, with another to follow on July 21-24 2016.
“Britain has a reputation for being able to stage major events,” he says. “We are expecting 500,000 people at the 2015 Portsmouth World Series event over the four days. The component parts are the same as at the Games in Weymouth. We will have big screens in the arenas and throughout various locations in the city, and entertainment such as music shows and air displays. It’s about making the day worth it.”
Perhaps the biggest indication of how seriously the new British Cup campaign and the Portsmouth ACWS show are being taken comes with the confirmation of the television coverage. BT Sport will screen the races live, while the BBC will produce highlight programmes. Both broadcasters have paid for the rights, another big step forward for sailing. “This is a clear indication of where we are going,” says Mills, “and an illustration of why this is different from previous challenges.”
So why has television turned on to sailing now?
“Sport on television needs stars and excitement. Now we have a star,” says Grade. “For the visuals we have the speed, the spray and people moving around on the boats, which you don’t get in Formula One.” The problem for spectators in the past was “that no one knew who was ahead. Now anyone can understand the racing. Sailing can be a spectacular sport on television, particularly if there is a good crowd and atmosphere. Cameras don’t like empty stadiums.”
Based on the crowds that have been drawn to previous ACWS events in Europe, including the only one to have been held in the UK, in Plymouth, empty seats are unlikely to be a problem. “Within the first 48 hours of tickets going on sale, over 60,000 were booked, which shows the huge interest in the event,” said ACWS Portsmouth event director Leslie Greenhalgh.
Free tickets for the weekend days at the Waterfront Festival Arena in Portsmouth, which has a daily capacity of 30,000, were snapped up within days. For the official Fanzone Arena, where tickets started at £30, sales took off; 60 per cent of the weekend capacity sold within a matter of weeks.
For all the uplifting talk of the British team taking home sailing’s richest prize, will lack of funding sink their hopes, as in previous America’s Cups?
“It’s not a walk in the park, but the team is very well funded,” says Dunstone. “We’ve reached our private funding target and have a number of very hot irons in the forge on the sponsorship front.” Mills is even more confident about the financial challenge, adding: “By the end of the year we will be fully funded.”
So what would it mean to the UK if the team were successful in bringing the Cup back to Britain? “If we were to win, it would rank as one of the highest moments in British sport,” says Mills. “Like hosting the Olympic Games or winning the football or rugby World Cups.” Look at the impact that Emirates Team New Zealand’s Cup win had on the redevelopment of Auckland and the regeneration of large areas of the city. The British government saw the power of sport and its ability to effect social change through the Olympics. “Portsmouth has needed regeneration since the navy has shrunk. Building a team like BAR here is a real statement that this is a growing, vibrant city. Long term, returning the Cup to the UK would allow us to transform the America’s Cup. But first you have to win it.”
Matthew Sheahan is Yachting World magazine’s racing and technical editor.
For more from the racing world, read about America’s Cup winner-cum-yacht consultant Brad Butterworth, or for sailing holiday inspiration, try a new boat in Indonesia with a single perfect suite or an Aqua Expedition down the mighty Mekong.