Sailing: Whitbread Round The World Race: Smith must make his impact now

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The crunch fifth leg of the seventh and last Whitbread Round the World Race starts from Auckland on Sunday with Britain's Lawrie Smith determined to head the fleet in Sao Sebastiao, Brazil. Stuart Alexander reports from Auckland.

Even a win will not stop the mutterings about Silk Cut in some quarters. But Lawrie Smith can only take one leg a time, and the 6,670 miles of this one score 13 points a place, the highest rating of all the nine in the Whitbread Race, which is taking the nine-boat fleet from Southampton last September back to Southampton this May.

Smith is well aware of the pressure he is under. His crew has had enough of waiting around in Auckland and want only to get on with it. They know they can pull themselves back up the table from the seventh overall they hold now, and they very much want to prove to themselves and others that the esteem in which they were held before the race started was justified.

All of Smith's rivals are expecting him to do well on this second ride through the wilds of the southern ocean, skirting the top of Antarctica and turning left at Cape Horn. All are going down to 60 degrees south, where a conveyor belt of strong to gale force wind systems circles the bottom of the globe.

This is not the roaring forties, but the screaming sixties and both Smith and second-placed Grant Dalton are predicting consistently strong winds. They are what the race needs, a high speed, edge of the seat struggle. They are what Smith wants, an ability to demonstrate again the mastery of these conditions which in the 1993/4 race brought him a world 24-hour record on Intrum Justitia and in the present race a new one, just 0.6 of a mile under 450.

There could still be tricky times as the fleet plays what are expected to be light winds all down the east coast of New Zealand for two days after the start. Except for anyone who can manage it, no-one wants to see a repeat of leg two, when Gunnar Krantz's Swedish Match stole a march on everyone leaving Cape Town and was never threatened again.

Mark Rudiger, navigator on Paul Cayard's EF Language, the overall leader, even went so far as to say it might be better if all the boats could be towed south through the lottery zone, lined up, and then started in what his skipper has called the danger zone. Cayard is playing his cards carefully, saying they have learned lessons from the fatigue and breakage of his first southern ocean foray on that second leg.

Smith acknowledges he has to take more risks than Cayard, who has a good cushion in the lead of three places from second-placed Dalton. Cayard has had his shore crew working overtime to ensure that all everything is checked, from the tip of the mast to the bottom of the keel. And he has said it may be better not to try and go flat out all the time.

But he is a competitive sailor and settling for third or fourth may not be an option that is open to him if everyone else is going flat out. He knows there is pressure on others than just Smith. Norway's Knut Frostad in Innovation Kvaerner wants to re-establish some rhythm and winning consistency after showing the way on the first two legs.

Krantz is determined to avenge the loss of what looked like a winning position on leg four until 200 miles from the finish. George Collins has handed over Chessie Racing to Dee Smith, but will want to see the improvement to two third places on the last two legs maintained.

The 4,500 miles to the Horn may well settle matters. Gear breakage is a constant threat, man overboard the ever-present nightmare. But the last 1,000 of the 2,000 miles up the east of South America and into the little Brazilian resort of Sao Sebastiao, on the coast near Sao Paulo, could provide the sort of tricky end-play that reshuffles the fleet in fickle light airs. "There are a lot of things that can go wrong," Smith said, "and, just like the Grand National, you have to clear all the fences and get across the finish line."

Smith has replaced his original navigator Steve Hayles with long-time collaborator Vincent Geake and put trimmer Neil Graham on the subs bench to make room for an extra helmsman, Gerry Mitchell. Like everyone else, he is aiming to read cleverly the routing conundrum and "go the right way."

A podium place, not just on this fifth leg but in the whole race, is still a real target and a look at the maths of the points system shows the possibility of an overall win is not lost. Others, too, are going to have to take risks in a high risk environment.