Prada are dressed to thrill

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The Independent Online

It took less than a minute for the story of the 1995 America's Cup to turn from an intriguing contest into an expensive yawn. At that moment, at the start of the first race of the final, Team New Zealand were so much quicker than the American defender that the beaten helmsman Paul Cayard lamented: "I've never taken part in a sailing contest in which I had solittle influence."

It took less than a minute for the story of the 1995 America's Cup to turn from an intriguing contest into an expensive yawn. At that moment, at the start of the first race of the final, Team New Zealand were so much quicker than the American defender that the beaten helmsman Paul Cayard lamented: "I've never taken part in a sailing contest in which I had solittle influence."

The New Zealanders went on to win in five straight races and in such emphatic style that as they flew the America's Cup back in its own first-class seat to a ticker-tape parade, the competition were left wondering how they would ever lever the cup out of Auckland.

For five years the experts have been saying that a two-defence cycle is inevitable given Team New Zealand's local knowledge, their unparalleled sailing expertise and the formidable team of utterly committed sailors, designers and technicians who have been turning up to work on a 7am-10pm daily basis at the impressive dockside complex ever since.

Until now. In the week since Prada won the Louis Vuitton Cup and the right to sail against Team New Zealand in America's Cup 2000, that total conviction in New Zealand's superiority has evaporated. There is nobody here who thinks that this will be a 5-0 Black Magic walkover.

Even the defending skipper Russell Coutts, who would be most experts' pick as the best sailor in the world, is not expecting to win it in straight races. He and his team know better than anyone that the shifty conditions in the Hauraki Gulf could gift the Italians at least one race even if the Italianboat, Luna Rossa, proves demonstrably slower. And no one is predicting that either.

Of course no one will know which boat is quicker until that vital first minute of the first race at lunchtime on Saturday. The best evidence available suggests that Luna Rossa will be faster if the wind is under 10 knots and the wider, more powerful New Zealand boats will kick in when it blows harder.

The picture may become a little clearer today when Team New Zealand have to declare which of their two boats they will sail; Prada are already committed to their first boat, ITA 45, as it was the boat that won the right to challenge. Team New Zealand must also unveil their keel on Tuesday.

No one will be watching New Zealand with more interest than Doug Peterson, who has been on the design team of the winning boats at the last two America's Cups but was wooed away from Team New Zealand by Prada when they assembled the elements of their blueprint for 2000 four years ago.

Team New Zealand were quick to play down Peterson's defection, saying that the ingredients of their design team's winning formula - in which Peterson merely played a constituent role - simply represented the state of the art five years ago. There are others who say that Peterson was as pivotal to that success as Prada hope he will prove to be on Saturday.

And if that is the case and Peterson's contribution has helped generate an Italian boat to match the New Zealanders for speed, then the 30th America's Cup may well live up to its billing as the greatest America's Cup ever and provide a sailing spectacle not seen in a final since Alan Bond's Australians first wrestled the Cup out of America in 1983.

With the indicators all pointing to no technological superiority on the water, much rests on the shoulders of the Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis and his crew. Insulated from the rigours of fund-raising, the Prada Challenge have luxuriated in the fashion house's $70m, which has bought them time and technology. Patrizio Bertelli gifted his team the boats and hardware he purchased from Bill Koch's victorious 1992 effort, and secured an army of designers, technicians and sailors. The combination allowed the Italians to spend two southern hemisphere summers training in Auckland while in Punta Ala, Italy, the design and building team crafted two new fighting machines.

This latest Italian challenge is powered by Italian sailors with only one exception, their Brazilian tactician Torben Grael who has a full set of gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals. His partnership with De Angelis saw Prada breeze through the three round-robin series before Christmas, but until recently question marks have always hung over how they would operate under pressure.

Those who were impressed by the speed and skill of the sailing team knowingly predicted that when the heat came on the Italians would buckle. But instead the Italians have been hardened by the pressure of three months of competitive racing that Team New Zealand - training alone - would have dearly loved to have had.

Anyone who had any doubts about their durability was silenced by the Louis Vuitton Cup final when the Italians went 3-1 up against Paul Cayard's AmericaOne only to be hauled back to 4-3 down.

At that point Cayard looked invincible and the doubters seemed vindicated. But Prada then sailed two immaculate races. While Team New Zealand have been sailing against each other in in-house races, Prada have been to the brink and back.

Race Schedule: 19 Feb Race 1; 20 Feb Race 2; 22 Feb Race 3; 24 Feb Race 4; 26 Feb Race 5; 27 Feb Race 6; 29 Feb Race 7; 2 March Race 8; 4 March Race 9. Reserve days: 5, 7, 9 March.

First boat to register five wins takes the cup. Races start 1315 local time (13 hours ahead of GMT). Highlights on Sky Sports.

HOW THE RIVALS LINE UP

Team New Zealand

Skipper: Russell Coutts

Tactician: Brad Butterworth

Campaign budget: US$20m

Hull colour: Black

Sponsors: Lotto, Toyota, TVNZ, Telecom New Zealand, Steinlager

Yacht Club: Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron

Coutts would be most people's pick for the best sailor in the world and Tom Schnackenberg, head of the design team, is one of the smartest technicians around. Team New Zealand have left few stones unturned in their quest for the right design solution. But they are the sole defender and although they will be competing on home waters they have had very little in the way of real match practice in the last two years.

Prada

Skipper: Francesco de Angelis

Tactician: Torben Grael

Campaign budget: US$70m

Hull colour: Grey

Sponsors: Prada

Yacht Club: Punta Ala

Glamour team from Italy have been spared the undignified business of raising a fighting fund by the patronage of Patrizio Bertelli and have enjoyed the luxury of being able to buy in technology and talent and to practise undisturbed for two years. Question marks over ability to perform under pressure were answered when they bundled the much-fancied AmericaOne team skippered by Paul Cayard (most people's pick for the second best sailor in the world) out of the Louis Vuitton Cup final.

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