Progress being made in America's Cup dispute

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The Independent Online

Keeping a foot in both camps, the BMW Oracle America's Cup challenge team yesterday announced it was shipping two boats from Valencia to Auckland for the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series next February, but, more importantly, progress is still being made towards resolving its legal dispute with the cup holder, Switzerland's Ernesto Bertarelli.

So far Bertarelli's Alinghi team has not accepted an invitation to join the Auckland regatta, but Team New Zealand's Grant Dalton has indicated he may be willing to remove the stumbling block, a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Bertarelli for what, in effect, amounts to a claim of non-perfomance in staging the next cup next year.

There has been an all-round softening of attitudes following a face to face meeting in San Francisco between Bertarelli and Oracle boss Larry Ellison.

They plan to repeat it in the next few days in Europe. A second meeting could be held before Ellison leaves Italy on Monday following his participation in an RC44 regatta.

The first talks included a blueprint for a whole new way of running the cup to be put in place not just for next time, America's Cup 33, but for the mid-term with up to two or three events. Both men are thought to accept there will be no return to the 2007 format.

That would include a permanent, event organising, management company with the involvement and participation not just of the defender but also the challengers. Bertarelli would retain a stake but the challengers would also have shareholdings.

In an open letter last December, Bertarelli also indicated he had accepted that the cup holder should be prepared to step back from total control and for the challengers to see some of their rights and influence restored. It would be a cross between Formula 1 and a football league with the cup holder enjoying more of the prize.

He still wishes to see the holder allowed to race in preliminary regattas, possibly including the challenger elimination series, on the grounds that, under a cost-containment rule that would allow only one new boat per team, that would be the only way to be match fit.

Formerly, the defending club would hold elimination trials of its own, but that practice was brought to an end by Team New Zealand for its first defence in 2000 and the commercial benefits of being a sole defender have also dissuaded Alinghi from inviting others to share the pie.

The Louis Vuitton regatta was welcomed by 23 interested parties as the whole America's Cup train was in the sidings of the New York law courts.

Eight teams, TNZ, K Challenge (FRA), Mascalzone Latino (ITA), BMW Oracle, Chine Team, Team French Spirit, Australia First, and Team Shosholoza (RSA) have declared.

Three more are entered but remain undeclared. Of them, two are thought to include Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli's Luna Rossa and Britain's Team Origin. There is a 12th spot now that the American boats can be added to the two boats being supplied by TNZ.

Origin boss Sir Keith Mills has had extensive talks with Bertarelli, as has Bertelli and, it is thought, a new power behind the German throne and Ignacio Sanchez-Galan from Spain's energy company Iberdrola. There is now the possibility of Sir Keith performing a bridging role by talking to Ellison with a view to bringing all the parties together for a public reconciliation. That it is needed is a pity, but painful lessons have been learned about the disastrous launch plan for the next Cup in Valencia last July.

It would also require Ellison's ceo and skipper Russell Coutts to be given an exit strategy and adviser Tom Ehman to pull the plug on the final law case due to be heard next year in the New York Court of Appeals.

For Ellison there is always the risk that it could go against him; for Bertarelli he needs to know, before the end of the year at the latest by the end of next month, that he could go ahead with planning two multi-challenger pre-regattas in 2009 - possibly in Valencia and the UK - and have enough time for a new design of 85-foot boat for an America's Cup 33 in 2010, almost certainly in Valencia.

Bertarelli has already stated that he wants a Cup by then, Dalton's (unenforceable) stipulation for dropping the case is a Cup by 2011, and Sir Keith Mills' director of sailing, Mike Sanderson, has predicted a multi-challenger America's Cup in 2010.

A delicate 10 weeks is in prospect.