Exclusive Sir Ben Ainslie interview: What next for the America's Cup hero?

Olympic legend tells Stuart Alexander in Bermuda about creating The Simpson Foundation and how time is against him to create a British America's Cup team

Stuart Alexander
Wednesday 09 October 2013 12:39
Sir Ben Ainslie is racing in Bermuda this week
Sir Ben Ainslie is racing in Bermuda this week

It is sunny, it is Bermuda, it is perfect for lounging about sipping a cocktail, especially if you have just overseen one of sport's greatest and most gruelling comebacks. But Sir Ben Ainslie is busier than ever. He is in this beautiful part of the world to take part in the Argo Gold Cup in Bermuda, the fifth of six regattas on the Alpari World Match Racing Tour. He will be racing not on the type of $200m winged wonder on which he just guided Team Oracle to glory in the America's Cup for the United States but a classic boat of a bygone era.

It is not all about the racing for once, however. It is also, in fact, mainly, about boosting funds for the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation in memory of his fellow Olympian who was killed in a training accident on the Artemis Racing boat in May. Ainslie has helped set up the foundation, which encourages young people to take part in the sport.

"Right now it is about Bart Simpson," Ainslie tells me over lunch at one of the island's harbour-front restaurants. "We are going to need a lot of support from all of Bart's mates if we are going to open the doors to all the people whom Bart himself tried to help. He used to be up late at night answering emails from younger sailors struggling with some part of their sailing. He was always straight with them and loved passing on that knowledge. He never held back on his thoughts on any aspect of life."

Ainslie's side for the Gold Cup is called the Ben Ainslie Racing Team, or Bart, and the four members make up a reunion of the team that won this title in 2010, namely Ainslie, Iain Percy – who won both gold and silver medals with Simpson at the Olympics – Mark Cornwell and Christian Kamp.

The fund-raising is going well too. There was a recent auction in San Francisco where Nick Bonham, director of the London house, was banging the hammer on bids totalling over $252,000 (£155,000) – Sir Bradley Wiggins' bike did especially well – and there is another auction in Bermuda tomorrow.

Raising funds is a theme with Ainslie. The five-time Olympic medallist is also under pressure to put together a creditable British challenge for the next America's Cup. Ainslie knows that he may have only a couple of weeks to assemble the team.

He is in the same bind as many other would-be challengers. It costs a lot of money, but no one knows quite how much, nor do they know where the event will be, when it will be staged and how is he supposed to define the package on offer to potential backers before they part with their millions?

"It's not easy," he says." There are a number of assumptions you can make, perhaps that we are looking at 2017, in San Francisco, a multi-hull, maybe the same 72-footer we have just raced or maybe something slightly smaller. So, you can take a worst-case scenario, make a budget based on that, but even then it could be $10m a year or maybe three times that. I think you have to take the worst-case scenario but hope it will be cheaper than that. So, you have to build a team round that."

And what is his timeframe for announcing the outline of a firm British challenge? "Definitely by the end of this month, realistically," he says, "because if you leave it much longer than that you definitely won't get there. You can never guarantee to win anything, but it's got to be a team which is strong enough.

"Otherwise you are just wasting everybody's time and that would be negative for British sailing. There's a lot of people that want to help and that is fantastic but you can't rely on people just wanting to help. It's too complex a project for that. We had a few nice messages from No 10 [Downing Street] but I don't think we would turn to the Lottery to try and find money." As for backing a strict nationality rule – you have to be British to race for a British team – which has been mooted in America's Cup circles, Ainslie keeps his powder dry. "We just want to find the best team to represent Britain," he says.

Oracle Team USA (including Ben Ainslie, bottom left) celebrate retaining the America's Cup (Getty)

Looking at the recent remarkable comeback from 8-1 down to a 9-8 win Ainslie debunks a few theories. "It's a funny thing about Oracle," he says. "Because it was backed by Larry Ellison and his unimaginable wealth gave rise to a misconception. It really isn't the team everyone thinks it is. It's actually really down-to-earth people.

"There are no rocket scientists in the background with million-dollar computer programmes that come out with something special. In some ways it is surprisingly normal. The difference between Oracle and Team New Zealand wasn't huge. I think TNZ may have had a bigger design team.

"Team New Zealand also ran out of steam in Valencia in 2007. There wasn't much left in the locker. I read all that stuff about the 'Herbies' [an automatic stabilising mechanism developed for aircraft] and all that sort of nonsense. It's just crap. We didn't fly in boat builders from all over the world. We didn't have any secret weapon we pulled out at the last minute. It was just old-fashioned hard work, plus some adjustments to the wing and an improvement in technique."

Ainslie is plotting his course in a much more old-fashioned boat here. The Gold Cup, a five-day regatta between 20 teams, is raced in classic boats which were designed in 1936. He says they are perfectly suited to race inside the Hamilton harbour, "but they are not the future". For Ainslie, you feel, the future is another crack at the America's Cup and keeping alive the memory of his lost friend.

To join online bidders and raise funds for the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation, visit andrewsimpson-auction.com

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