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The America’s Cup fails to impress with revolutionary adjustments


It was supposed to be a wholesale restyling of an event that goes back to a yacht race around the Isle of Wight in 1851. It was going to be, rather insultingly to some, a switch from the Flintstone to the Facebook generation. Instead it has fallen into the age-old traps of overweening ambition and misguided dollops of greed.

The America’s Cup is staggering from a series of baseball bat blows to the head despite being backed by one of the world’s richest men, Larry Ellison, who has masterminded a huge fortune as boss of the Oracle computer software company.

And his team is headed by a man who has won the cup four times, is an Olympic gold medallist, is a talented engineer, has been knighted at home in New Zealand, and is the highest paid sportsman in that rugby-mad country, Russell Coutts.

“What has gone wrong?” Coutts was asked recently by the man who wants to take the cup back to New Zealand, Grant Dalton.

Ellison and Coutts’ intentions, as far as the sport and the event were concerned, were good. They wanted to bring to the people a game that is normally played well away from the public view, so they spent a fortune on developing television systems for race courses close to the shore.

They wanted to speed up a game that had been played at nine to 12 miles an hour. Now it is being played at speeds occasionally in excess of 40 miles an hour. They thought this would be more thrilling for a vastly increased television audience.

But they also wanted to establish a circuit in smaller versions of the new-style boat. It was hugely expensive, failed to attract enough host venues, failed to generate cash, and so became an unsupportable drain on resources.

It also diverted attention from their and the teams’ main objective, which was to stage the biggest and best America’s Cup in Ellison’s home town of San Francisco.

When Ellison won the Cup, which he had twice failed to do in 2003 and 2007, he first ram-raided the Swiss holder Ernesto Bertarelli through the New York courts and then took a major gamble with a monster trimaran which paid off in Valencia in 2010.

The boat and the courts cost hundreds of millions of dollars and then, to the astonishment of all in the room, Ellison said he would like to see a team be able to challenge for $5m.

The America’s Cup Event Austority told San Francisco they would bring enough teams to generate an economic impact of $1.4bn, including creating thousands of jobs.

Three challengers have turned up in San Francisco, spending about $100m each to do so, to race in a new breed of 72-foot wing-powered catamarans that is still not fully developed and tested.

The defender, Oracle, had already flipped its boat last October during training close to Golden Gate Bridge but no-one was seriously hurt. So there was much talk about what to do, but that talk was kept behind the scenes. Until someone died.

When Britain’s gold and silver Olympic medallist was killed in a May training accident when the Swedish challenger Artemis suffered catastrophic structural failure, the organisation had to be seen to act.

The squabbling, bickering, and paranoia that are part of every America’s Cup conspiracy theorist’s prologue continued. It was too late to say they had picked the wrong boat, though it was Paul Cayard, boss of the Swedish team, who indicated it was not fit for purpose.

It was too late to say that the introduction of such a radical piece of kit should have been given more time, and it was too late to say that deliberately to restrict the amount of testing and development time had not been a clever idea.

A package of new measures, including body armour, redesigned crash helmets- the Medical Examiner’s report has yet to say if this played any part in Simpson’s death - knives at each corner of the boat to cut things free, and improved emergency oxygen supplies was outlined.

In addition there would be increased medical and diver support on team chase boats. But race director Iain Murray included a couple of controversial things in his 37-point safety package and said that it was an all-or-nothing deal to ensure that the U.S. Coastguard permit to run the event would remain in place.

He could have split the package to straight safety measures and separated any changes to design rules for the teams to consent, but he didn’t and both Dalton’s Emirates Team New Zealand and the Prada-backed, Patrizio Bertelli-fronted Italians, whose helmsman in British Olympic medallist Chris Draper, objected. An international jury upheld the objection. 

San Francisco is working out how much its taxpayers may have to fork out.

Television stations around the world, which were to flock to the doors of the America’s Cup Event Authority to pay big bucks for the rights to broadcast, have failed to appear.

Spectator tickets have had to be refunded as Artemis cannot race because there have been wholesale revisions to the schedule for the Louis Vuitton Cup eliminator series. The luxury goods company’s swansong participation, which started in a much more elegant era, is turning into a doleful lament.

But the band will strike a new tune on 7 September when the final challenger – bet on no-one other than the Kiwis unless they are going to trash their boats – lines up against an Oracle team which also includes the recently knighted British Olympian Ben Ainslie.

“They have killed,” said a casual observer, “a beautiful event.”  If the sparks fly for the showdown in September, much will be forgiven. There is much to forgive.

* Leading from start to finish, the New Zealand boat was 5min 23sec ahead of Italy’s Luna Rossa as the first two-boat race in the Louis Vuitton Cup was at last completed. The gap at the finish could be measured in kilometres.