In an extraordinary, near-unprecedented climax to the most prestigious event in sailing, the US Oracle Team has capped a monumental comeback by winning the last race of the contest – and thus claiming the 34th America’s Cup. The US victory over the Emirates Team New Zealand marks only the third time in the regatta’s 162-year history that the competition has been decided in a winner-takes-all final.
The event was rocked with controversy and becalmed by public indifference before it began, but, in spite of multiple onshore issues, America’s Cup organisers could not have hoped for a more gripping contest on the water. Since 7 September, two vast carbon-fibre catamarans, crewed by some of the world’s most celebrated sailors, have chased each other at speeds of 50mph or more in a series of 17 races on San Francisco Bay.
Docked two points before the contest even began, Oracle Team USA came perilously close to defeat early on, going down 1-8 to New Zealand, the pre-Cup favourites. But on Tuesday, the Oracle team secured its sixth and seventh consecutive victories to level the score at 8-8, preparing the water for the momentous showdown.
The Oracle turnaround was navigated by British four-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie, who was handed the role of team tactician, in place of his veteran crewmate John Kotecki, with the score at 4-1. After the 36-year-old took over, his team mounted their remarkable return from the brink, winning 10 of the subsequent 14 races.
It was the shocking death of another British Olympian that marked the low point for the America’s Cup event, which faced multiple crises in the run-up to the final race series. Andrew “ Bart” Simpson, 36, a member of the Swedish Artemis crew, drowned after his team’s AC72 flipped during a training session. His death led to the introduction of a package of new safety measures.
The AC72s were criticised before the competition not only for the potential dangers involved in racing them, but also for their prohibitive cost: each team spent an estimated $100m or more to take part. Larry Ellison, the multi-billionaire CEO of Oracle, won the Cup in 2010, and with it the right to organise this year’s event. Ellison, the world’s fifth-richest man, chose the AC72 design and personally funded a pair of catamarans for Oracle – to race against each other in training.
The Oracle team had in fact won 10 of the previous 18 races going into the final, but had begun the competition with a two-race penalty for cheating. Three Oracle crew members were also banned from participating after they were found to have made illegal modifications to another catamaran during last year’s contest.
Comebacks: All-time greats
Liverpool v A C Milan, 2005
At half time in the 2005 Champions’ League final, Liverpool trailed 0-3. In the second half Liverpool scored three goals in six minutes forcing extra time, then winning on penalties.
The Ryder Cup, 2012
Dubbed the ‘Miracle of Medinah’, the Europeans retain their title by overhauling a 10-6 deficit. It was Martin Kaymer’s putt on the 18th that silenced the home crowd and defeated Steve Stricker, taking the score to 14–13.
The Headingley Test, 1981
A dominant Australia looked set to go 2-0 up in the Ashes series after taking a seemingly unassailable lead. That was until Ian Botham came into bat and hit an innings of 149. In Australia’s second innings, Bob Willis took eight for 43. England went on to seal an 18-run win.
Muhammed Ali, 1974
Stripped of his heavyweight title and his boxing license for refusing to serve in Vietnam, Ali, 32, defeated the champion George Foreman.