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The build-up to the America’s Cup in 2017 is proving that Britain is fielding its most credible challenge yet in the 164-year history of the oldest international trophy in sport.
Skimming the waves will be the fastest and most technically advanced boats ever, in a contest that the US has dominated. In 1851, members of the New York Yacht Club beat 14 English wooden cutters and schooners with their yacht America round the Isle of Wight.
It was not until 1983 that Australia broke the Americans’ 132-year winning streak. Britain has tried and failed to win almost 20 times.
The speed of these boats has tripled in eight years, through advanced hydrodynamics and aeronautics. A move to drag-reducing hydrofoils means that speeds of up to 45mph are possible.
Sir Ben Ainslie is charged with translating the British effort into victory in the contest. The Land Rover BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing) 45ft carbon-fibre catamaran used in early rounds is complex to sail — the helmsman controls the sails with one hand and the foils with the other. The organisation was set up 12 months ago by Sir Ben with former McLaren F1 boss Martin Whitmarsh as chief executive. The £80m campaign saw Land Rover providing financial and technical support to develop performance gains on the water and a solid business model. BAE Systems provides high-technology engineering. The announcement of another commercial partner is expected.
Jono Macbeth, BAR sailing team manager and a three-time America’s Cup winner, says: “We need to keep improving if we are going to be successful. When we started this series, I didn’t think there would be one team that dominated, as the fleet is so strong.”
In the opening races, fleet positions have been clear. The British, American and New Zealand teams have been faster in reading the wind and covering the water than those from France, Japan and Sweden.
But that could change in the third event, off Bermuda next month. And it remains to be seen whether advantages can be transferred to the boats being developed to race for the cup itself.
Sir Ben, a four-time Olympic gold medallist as well as a past America’s Cup winner, says: “We are in . . . an intense period of development with our test boats. We want to maximise our learning from the tests and make the most of the next year, in preparation for the final race.”