America's Cup: Threat increases as teams set to boycott opening

Italian team Luna Rossa has said they will not show up for first race on Sunday

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The Independent Online

It is a case of high stakes brinkmanship. The threat to call off the America’s Cup the day after it begins on Sunday is still in place. The Italian team Luna Rossa, backed by Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli, has said it will not show up for its first race against Emirates team New Zealand on Sunday.

The third challenger, Sweden’s Artemis racing, has said it may not be able to take part at all if last-minute changes are not made to the design rules, and the planned opening race for all three plus the defender, Oracle, had to be called off because there was a forecast wind of over 20 knots.

The trade in insults becomes more acrimonious, Oracle boss and architect of the new America’s Cup Russell Coutts describing the Italians as a spoiled bunch of rich kids. His backer Larry Ellison, of Oracle software house fame, is one of the richest men in the world and has poured hundreds of millions of dollars first into winning the 1851 cup and then setting up a circus that was meant to switch its appeal from the Flintstone to the Facebook generation.

If the whole thing falls apart, the cost in terms of the half billion dollars already spent on developing boats, or the hundreds of millions of dollars committed to spectator facilities and travelling, or investment by local businesses, and lost revenue for hospitality programmes already in tatters, would bring tears to the eyes.

An event which lives on its history, tradition and unfathomable quirkiness looks like a very scantily-clad emperor after a series of blunders and broken promises. Elegant it ain’t.

The most recent furore has seen the race director, Iain Murray, a quiet spoken but full-blooded Aussie, saying he felt insulted by “farcical” insinuations from some of the competitors.

Both the organisers and the competitors have accused each other of exploiting the death of British Olympic gold medallist Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson in a training accident.

After the Swedish 72-foot wing-powered catamaran on which he was sailing was all but destroyed within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, an inquiry headed by Murray led to recommendations on 22 May designed to improve safety, and two of them have been protested both Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa.

The opening ceremony was on 4 July with a parade of sail – a forecast of 20-knot winds meant that the AC boats did not compete in a fleet race - on Friday and the first proper racing is scheduled for Sunday. Only two of the three challengers are able to race for the first month at least as the Swedes try to regroup.

On Saturday a five-person international jury, four men and a woman, not due to convene until Monday was being urged to bring forward its consideration of complaints that Murray has exceeded his powers by changing the design rules with six weeks to go.  Without that, said Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena, the Italians would not race.

Running alongside is the thought by some that this might either give advantage to the locally-based defender, software billionaire Larry Ellison’s Oracle, or remove hard-won advantage developed by the challengers. Nonsense says Murray.

As did Paul Cayard, who described such allegations as “slanderous and paranoid” adding that if the protests are upheld that would force Artemis out of the event.

Murray says that if the Kiwi/Italian argument prevails he will report to the US Coastguard that the package of 37 recommendations, on which he says the event’s permit to race rely and have been converted into event rules, cannot be delivered.

Locally it is claimed that the USCG will be able to live with the 35 and Murray will be able to say he did his best. Eventually, things will be settled on the water, though that will not be until September when Oracle races the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup elimination series.

Whatever happens, the event has taken a costly knock. Whatever happens, it will live to fight another day. Vast amounts of valuable experience, commercial, sporting and technological, have been banked.

And, if the boats are close in performance, the best of 17 which starts on 7 September, assuming they can both stay in one piece, may produce the lushest of fig leaves in the form of the most spectacular racing in 162 years.