America's Cup: Challengers line up for sailing's glittering summer

The Louis Vuitton Cup starts this week to decide who will race Alinghi for the America's Cup. Stuart Alexander assesses the new wave in Valencia

To a backdrop of Palm Sunday church parades and pyrotechnics on the water, Valencia came out in droves yesterday as the new America's Cup harbour opened its doors here.

The top local sporting priority may still be the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea on Wednesday, but thousands came to see the kick-off of a glittering, €2bn (£1.4bn) summer of yacht racing.

It is the first time in the 156-year history of the Cup - first won by the yacht America in a race against Britain's best around the Isle of Wight - that it has been staged in any country other than that of the holder. The bid process to stage it, after Alinghi walloped the still-smarting Kiwis in 2003, was won by Spain's third biggest city and promises a huge immediate economic impact, a long-term boost to its standing, and some of the most glitzy parties in Europe.

On show were all the boats, their secrecy screens removed. At the head of the revamped harbour is the Swiss defender, Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi team, expected to pick Ed Baird over Peter Holmberg to helm this week's series of what could be weather-affected fleet races, starting tomorrow. Down the pit lane are the 11 challengers who through a high-pressure hand-to-hand fight for the Louis Vuitton Cup, will be whittled down to one to face Alinghi in the best-of-nine series starting in June.

Hundreds of millions have been spent by the city as part of a general facelift. Each of the teams has spent tens of millions designing and building boats and facilities; about €120m apiece in the case of Alinghi and BMW Oracle down to less than €20m for the cash-strapped Sicilian-based +39, for whom the British Olympic medallists Iain Percy and Ian Walker run the back of the boat.

The wonderfully talented crew and others have often been left wondering when or whether they would be paid, and it has been impossible to prepare thoroughly, especially with a new mast, a boat they still feel will be genuinely quick.

Also pacing the pavements with long and expensive shopping lists are Sir Keith Mills and Mike Sanderson, the man just announced as director of the Origin team to represent Britain next time round.

All the secrecy of design was supposed to be swept away as the teams had to remove the huge screens which hide the underwater shapes. The South Africans jumped the gun a night early in a headline-grabbing move which had the local mayor, Rita Barbera, who is seeking re-election next month, sharing the stage with an elephant, meant to represent Africa, but with distinctly Indian ears.

If the intricacies left most of the visitors bewildered yesterday, clearly the most radical is the China team, with wholesale French input, while Italy's Luna Rossa showed the biggest change of heart between its first and second boats, Alinghi the most confidence, and Team New Zealand, where Britain's Ben Ainslie seems destined for the bench, the most menace.

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