Sailing / Round the World Race: Whitbread changes on the horizon: Fierce debate over new scoring system for Round the World Race. Stuart Alexander reports

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THERE are still nearly 10,000 miles to go in the remaining two legs of the sixth Whitbread Round the World Race but there is already fierce debate and lobbying over the structure of the seventh, the 1997-98 event.

One important step was taken with the announcement that there will be just one type of yacht next time, the specially designed Whitbread 60, so there will be no handicap problems or dual-class confusions. First over the line is the outright winner.

Well, nearly. There remains the problem that a race decided by accumulated time over a number of stages can quickly run out of bite if one boat has a good leg, picks up a lot of hours and then sits on that cushion for the rest of the race. That has happened for the last couple of races and has probably happened again this time. The first leg, crossing so many weather zones, including the Doldrums, offers too many opportunities for a lottery to decide the outcome of three years' work.

Various options for replacing elapsed time with points for each leg are being investigated. The advantage is that, instead of being dumped out of contention altogether by the weather, it would just be for one leg. A win by 12 hours would only be worth one extra point, as would a win by 12 seconds. And a major gear failure would be costly only on that leg, by losing points, rather than being carried forward.

In a race based on sailing fastest round the world, points could be a problem - a boat with the shortest elapsed time could have fewer points than the winner. The whole structure, though, is being reassessed by the man reappointed as race director, Ian Bailey-Willmot. There could still be a separate prize for the fastest boat, and elapsed time may be used as a tie-breaker.

Bailey-Willmot faces lobbying about the route, which could include a French stop, though that would be better at the beginning than the end. Cape Town is back on the menu, and Fremantle retains its attraction as a Christmas stop-over for major refits.

Sydney comes into play and would lead to a sprint across the Tasman Sea, taking the fleet through the Cook Strait, to bring in Wellington - though not as a stop-over - and up the coast of New Zealand to Auckland.

From there things are tricky, as South America in general is out of favour, but it is a long way from Auckland to Fort Lauderdale, in Florida. Stopping near Cape Horn would be media-attractive but logistically difficult. The suggestion of Barbados would be a rum affair.

Whatever else, the race wants to go up to the bigger market of the north-eastern United States. New York would be favoured but is expensive, and the race could be lost in the Big Apple's voracious appetite for fast-moving sports excitement. Baltimore would be attractive, but it is not New York.

Whichever is chosen, the Statue of Liberty and the Ambrose Light would need to be brought into play for the last leg across the Atlantic. Not least, that would fit in perfectly with the new approach to sponsorship. As in the Tour de France, there are likely to be leg prizes and sponsors, like the Diamond Run to South Africa, King of the Ice, King of the Horn and a finale of the Blue Riband run.

The uneasy relationship between Whitbread and its two principal sub-sponsors, BT and Heineken, is, anyway, in the process of being unscrambled and that will leave Whitbread's coffers about pounds 6m lighter. BT has already announced it will pull the plug on a third race, though it has contractual rights to the lucrative results service, and Heineken is unlikely to return in its present role as leg-trophy sponsor.

Closely linked to sponsorship matters is the issue of television coverage. The present race has been presented more in magazine style, not least because technology has failed to deliver enough on-board footage. Whitbread is now talking to several television producers, the majority abroad, one or two with considerable muscle.

Bailey-Willmot will have a new, small team from 1 July, and the rest of the committee system could do with being slimmed down, but one desk will be empty, that of the yet-to-be-recruited commercial director. The salary of up to pounds 40,000 a year is too low to attract an established sports promotion high flyer, but anyone with vision should be able to see the enormous potential. Making it happen is the challenge.