The Mika Hakkinen role is occupied by Francesco de Angelis, a studious, serious, scholarly competitor, thoughtful about every statement, eyes transmitting both analytical and quizzical emotions simultaneously.
As skipper of the high-riding Prada boats sent from Italy to achieve the burning ambition of Patrizio Bertelli, head of the Milan-based fashion house, he knows his opponent well. But his rival, Paul Cayard, more in the Michael Schumacher mould, is as well known in Italy as De Angelis.
As skipper of the last Italian challenge in 1992, the Il Moro di Venezia campaign funded by the colourful Raul Gardini when he was chairman of Montedison - he was later found shot after being arrested in a local corruption scandal - Cayard took sailing to the top of the sporting agenda in a country normally obsessed with football.
He won the Louis Vuitton Cup in San Diego and with it the sole right to challenge the Americans for the trophy. Even though losing, he was credited with filling cafes in the evening with people watching on television a sport they could barely understand.
Cayard, like De Angelis, is an obsessive student of the game. He picked up his grounding under the guidance of a man who combined sail-boat racing with motor racing, Tom Blackaller, in San Francisco. He enjoys talking in public, except when he has lost a race, made a name for himself with vivid descriptions of life on board e-mailed from EF Education when winning the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race, and likes to combine management roles with driving the boats.
If Cayard likes muck and bullets and hand-to-hand fighting, De Angelis warms visibly to the science of winning. "I like all the technical aspects," he says. There are perhaps six people working on improving boat speed for every one of the 16 who take the boat on the track each day. For every hour of racing - the 20-mile, six-leg upwind and downwind course takes about two and a quarter hours - there will be 30 of training, testing and developing.
The differences between yacht racing and motor racing, he says, do not stop with all the work being left in the hands of a single driver. A car can be tested on a reasonably flat track, in ideal conditions, with the constant reference back of lap times. Yachts always have something slightly different, be it the strength and direction of the wind, the height of the waves, and all the myriad settings of sail and mast angle, rudder and keel construction. And, unlike a racing car, which is an overblown go-kart in kit form to be assembled from bits on the rack, a yacht hull is fixed.
"We start by putting a grand prix package together from all the options, but when the gun goes for the start of a series of races, like a round robin of the Louis Vuitton Cup, we are much more like a rally car," says De Angelis. "We can changes some things every day, but the rules mean we cannot change the basic structure of the boat. That is fixed."
From long days on the water testing tiny differences between two boats to see which works best, which lives up to the design boffins' predictions, and which is adopted in the debriefing after each session, De Angelis recognises the need to move into a different mode for racing.
The confrontation is fascinating. Not least because this is not just a high noon face-off between Cayard and De Angelis. Alongside each is a tactician, someone who can work out what the fickle wind is going to do during the race and direct both pre-start tactics, to fight for the final five minutes for the best position on the grid, as well as pick where on the 3.2-mile leg the wind is going to be best.
The best tacticians are on these two boats - the Olympic gold medallist Torben Grael whispering in De Angelis's ear; John Kostecki, winner of Olympic silver, constantly feeding information to Cayard. "The game is so quick, there is no time to update on what is going to happen," says De Angelis. "You almost have to know what your own boat is going to do by watching the wheel of your competitor. We know the comparative strengths and weaknesses of our own and the other boats, and we know their racing styles. So we have put ourselves in other people's shoes."
And in their heads. "Each has a hunting strategy, and environment which they like more," he says with a rare smile. "Racing is fun."Reuse content