America's Cup: Sir Ben Ainslie taps Portsmouth passion for big race quest

Crowds of half a million are expected to cheer on the British challenger in qualifiers at the home of new team base

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The Independent Online

If Sir Ben Ainslie can bring the America’s Cup back from Bermuda in 2017, it would be the longest awaited homecoming in all of sporting history. The America’s Cup, despite its name and having been won by an American team for nearly all its 164-year history, was born in Portsmouth, where the brand new home of Ben Ainslie Racing is now open.

In a month’s time the first of six or possibly seven qualifying races for the 2017 final in Bermuda will take place in Portsmouth. It will mark the first attempt to energise the public into backing this very British team’s bid to win one of the most prestigious trophies in sport. Crowds of up to half a million are expected to turn up.

“I can’t imagine what it will be like, seeing six boats flying into the top mark at 40mph,” said race organiser Sir Keith Mills, the former deputy chairman of the London Olympics. “It’s going to be bloody hairy.”

After the unprecedented triumph of the American billionaire Larry Ellison’s Team Oracle in San Francisco in 2013, where Ainslie was brought into the team when they were 8-1 down to New Zealand and helped them take the last eight races to win 9-8 in front of massive television audiences, the mission is also to reinvent America’s Cup sailing in the mould of Formula One, as a popular, exciting and understandable television sport.

To that end Martin Whitmarsh, once the team principal of the McLaren F1 team, has been brought in as chief executive for a competition that will be driven by technological innovation and those much discussed small margins. “I’d taken a passing interest in the America’s Cup over a number of years,” said Whitmarsh. “I was car testing in France when Ben turned it around two years ago. It was breathtaking. But it had that televisual quality, too, for the first time.

“I could also see it was a technology race, but you could see it could be commercialised and built into a sustainable business.”

Last time around Ellison, one of America’s richest men, is believed to have spent upwards of £500m on winning the race. Ben Ainslie Racing will have a budget of £80m. Ellison’s team, by way of having won the last competition, receive an automatic place in the final. Ben Ainslie Racing will be one of five challengers, with others coming from Sweden, France, Japan and New Zealand, but there is consensus among the teams, including Oracle, about wanting to build the event into a sustainable format, not merely a race that is won via the chequebook.

A significant chunk of the £80m has come from Land Rover, who were announced as the team’s principal sponsor. They have so far raised 75 per cent of the target figure, with Ainslie himself acting as the chief salesperson for what he says will be the biggest challenge of his career. Despite winning four gold medals at four different Olympics, claiming the America’s Cup for Britain would, he said, “be the pinnacle”.

“America’s Cup is the pinnacle of sailing,” agreed Whitmarsh. “I think we’ve got the best sailing team in the world. Now we’ve got to give them the best boat. But we’re not here for one campaign. This building hasn’t been built for Bermuda 2017. We would like to defend it if we’re fortunate enough to win, but we’re building something beyond the America’s Cup.”

The boats for the 2017 challenge will be assembled at the new building in Portsmouth, 45-foot hydrofoils which balance on daggerboards that lift them clean out of the water and will reach speeds of up to 60mph. The intention is that the centre, which has received £7.5m in government funding, will act as an America’s Cup centre of excellence for British sailing for the next 20 or 30 years, and be the heart of a whole sailing engineering industry, in the way that the F1 teams based in Britain, currently Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren, Williams and Lotus, have become an industry in themselves.

Ben Ainslie Racing will also be a truly British team. Oracle Team USA will have only two or three American sailors. Among the team that Ainslie will skipper is Giles Scott, Britain’s Finn class world champion and among the shortest-odds favourites to win the gold medal at the Rio Olympics next year of any competitor from any country in any sport.

Should Ben Ainslie Racing win in Bermuda, they gain the right to choose where the 2021 final will take place. “It’s pretty clear that by building this building in Portsmouth, there is a clear intent to bring it back here, to where it’s all started,” Ainslie said.

But that is not without its challenges. To host the qualifying race next month, Mills said he “had to get the navy to move their warships for a couple of weeks”. To host the America’s Cup would “need them to do so for a couple of years, which is not easy. But if we can make it work, we will.”