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Sailing: Law wants to rule in America's Cup

Stuart Alexander examines the delicate manoeuvres taking place before the start of sailing's two biggest events in 2000
CHRIS LAW, Britain's new champion of match racing, is looking anxiously, not over his shoulder at younger rivals threatening to topple him, but to the 18 months ahead. The crunch is approaching on whether he will either achieve one of his life's big dreams, being at the wheel of Britain's pounds 15m bid to win the America's Cup, or have to settle for the "not quite made it" class.

At the moment he is riding high, ranked No 2 in the world, and lucky, at the age of 46, still to be competing at top level. Most sports would have burned him out by now. But although he says he now has to make a choice between having another crack at the Olympic Games or playing a major role in a full British challenge for the America's Cup, both of which are staged in 2000, in fact the choice is not his.

He has been offered a three-man Soling by the Royal Yachting Association for the world championships, one of seven world championships taking place concurrently in Melbourne in January. He has turned that down, partly on the grounds that, as long as the 1996 representative, Andy Beadsworth, does well enough to qualify Great Britain for the Sydney Games, Law can have a crack later at the trials to decide who will sail.

But the suspicion is that his priority is to maintain a more financially rewarding presence on the match racing circuit, in Bermuda this week, then Japan and Malaysia. And he wants to keep his America's Cup powder dry. In Falmouth for the British match racing finals, he said he was having to make contingency plans in case the British challenge did not happen. Even if it does, Law then has to manage a difficult relationship with the man who will be sailing director of any British challenge, Lawrie Smith.

The syndicate headed by Bath University's Professor Andrew Graves, is still indicating it will be ready to announce the building of the first of two hulls, probably in Weymouth, before the end of November. They would create their own facility and have the New Zealander Tony Smith standing by to lead the team. Facilities have been secured in Auckland. P&O would ship the hulls.

They are also optimistic about finance, hopeful that lengthy talks with Jaguar will be successful. They will also want to present the mathematics of financial support, and support in kind from people like Silicon Graphics and the Defence Establishment Research Agency, in such a way that it will persuade the lottery ladlers that they spoon them a matching amount of real money, perhaps up to pounds 5m.

Law has been assiduously trying to climb on board for the last 18 months. He has, he says, a very good relationship with Graves - they visit each other's homes for Sunday lunch, speaking most weekends. He has, he says, a workable relationship with Smith, though it is not difficult to detect grit in the gearbox.

Law can be prone to speaking in the brochure English of a basic course in marketing. He wants to get his public relations right, to be judged on his present successes, not burdened with any historical baggage. It is 10 years since domestic and financial problems left him floundering in a wilderness both emotional and geographical.

Financially he is now secure, not least because of the lottery funding he receives and sponsorship from the Nautica Elite Racing Team. He has worked on replacing aggression with compatibility. "I used to love the sound of my own voice, but now I listen to people," he says. Age is just a state of mind - look at Buddy Melges who won the America's Cup for Bill Koch at the age of 63 - "I am more relaxed and confident than I have been in my whole life."

But the seeds of friction are contained in statements which, on the one hand, say he is happy just to helm the yacht, leaving Smith to be skipper, and then insist that he has around him the people with whom he wants to be sailing. As for Smith, whom he describes as "fantastic", Law says he has a great feeling for a boat and would be especially good at sails, particularly asymmetric spinnakers, and driving the tune-up boat.

Smith, a past rival of Law's for the Olympic slot in the Soling and who makes no secret of a less than buddy-buddy personal chemistry with him, is unlikely to describe his role in quite those terms. Sail trimmer and tune-up helmsman is not the way he will be described on the web site biographical notes, and the initial meetings between the two has seen a lot of circling, each footstep planted very warily.

Law knows it is he could end up working as a tune-up driver if the British project goes pear-shaped for him. The subject has already been broached with the Italian Prada syndicate. He has also, he says, agreed to sail for Stephen Bailey in next year's Admiral's Cup, either on the Sydney 40 which Bailey has ordered or a subsequent 50-footer which Bailey may build.

How Law, the only Briton to have helmed a modern America's Cup class yacht, handles himself ashore has, so far, always been difficult to predict, but there is no doubt he is a quick driver.

He says Smith acknowledges that he is "the right guy to steer the boat." But he cannot resist a little arrogance when he says: "Ask any of the other America's Cup skippers, Peter Gilmour, Paul Cayard, Ed Baird, Russell Coutts, `which British skipper would you fear most?' would any of them not say Chris Law."

In Bermuda he will have a chance to frighten all of them in the 50th Bermuda Cup which starts tomorrow, but he will have to wait until next year to see if he can top the world rankings. He has to wait only until the end of the week for the whole of the challenger group to assemble for its latest meeting. The Sunday call to the Graves abode should be one worth tapping into.