Ben Ainslie, who would become the most successful Olympic sailor in history if he adds one more to his collection of three golds and one silver at London 2012, on Tuesday launched his campaign for the America’s Cup in an international sporting alliance with US software group Oracle.
Ainslie is assembling a team for a British challenge initially underwritten by Oracle Racing, funded by US software billionaire Larry Ellison, which will compete first in the America’s Cup World Series in AC45 wing-sailed catamarans, and ultimately take on the cup’s defender in the full-size AC72s.
Ainslie, who will also be joining the San Francisco-based US team after the Olympics in August to seek a coveted spot in their America’s Cup boat in 2013, appealed for funding from international companies to back his new British team’s full challenge for the “Auld Mug”.
He said the set-up costs for the newly created Ben Ainslie Racing, €3m, had been underwritten by Oracle, though teams have been known to spend $200m for a full run at the trophy.
Setting out his long-term vision to compete in the 35th America’s Cup, after the 34th edition is staged in San Francisco next year, he said: “I’ve always tried to have a plan of what I’m doing next after the Olympics. The 2012 Olympics has been the focus, but from that has come the opportunity to be able to build a team which we hope can ultimately go on to challenge for the 35th America’s Cup.”
Ainslie noted that the America’s Cup had been “in a difficult place” but said its organisation was now “second to none, attracting the best athletes and designers and with a bright future”.
”We aim to be a challenger for the cup in the future and in the meantime to bring in commercial partners, to build the brand and an elite team of sailors. It’s a fantastic opportunity for people to get involved with the America’s Cup.” He said early team members were Grant Simmer in a managerial role and Jo Grindley in communications.
Sir Russell Coutts, four times winner of the America’s Cup and Oracle Racing chief executive, told the FT at the launch of the initiative at London’s Royal Festival Hall: “With Ben, our challenge is to build an invincible team around his objectives as well as ours. We get his incredible talent and in return he gets to see our teamwork and learn all about wing-sailing as we do and apply it to his own team of sailors.
“There is no question he is a fantastic talent and we will be using those skills in ways yet to be determined. He could choose a more technical role with Jimmy Spithill at the helm, or he could take him on for that spot. I will put the best man behind the wheel when it comes to it.”
Sir Russell added: “This arrangement is taking the concept of the sport to a whole new level where, as with Ben, we are seeing more important player trading, the sport and action becoming more dynamic as a result. The wing-sailed boats are becoming more and more manoeuvrable, making racing more exciting.
“In the AC one-design classes, competition is more equal, the trick with the wing is when and how you shift the wind power and how the crew reacts as the wind shifts and the boat turns. These younger, fitter Olympic sailors will play an increasingly important role in the handling of this finely tuned technology. The boats only amplify the skills of good and average sailors.”
Sir Russell said earlier: “With all the things we are doing to improve the America’s Cup commercially, I think this is a great time for someone like Ben laying down the foundations for his own team. With massive improvements to televising the racing and staging it right where fans can see it, there has never been a better arena for stars such as Ben.”
Ben Ainslie Racing will be entering the America’s Cup World Series representing the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club, which is run by commodore Peter Collett in Falmouth, which may now find itself competing in the same international arena as Oracle’s Golden Gate Yacht Club.
It will be 34-year-old Ainslie’s fourth America’s Cup campaign. After the 2000 Sydney Olympics he joined the American One World Challenge, then after Athens in 2004 he helped Team New Zealand lift the Louis Vuitton Cup before joining Sir Keith Mills’s challenge Team Origin as skipper after Beijing.
Welcoming Ainslie to his team, Sir Russell said: “It’s fantastic for the America’s Cup that we’ve got a three-time Olympic gold medallist, four-time Olympic medallist, hopefully soon to become five. The America's Cup without Ben would be a little bit like Wimbledon without Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. He’s the number one sailor in the world right now and it’s fantastic to have him involved in our team.”
The cup was first awarded in 1851 by the Cowes-based Royal Yacht Squadron for a race around the Isle of Wight which was first won by the schooner America. The trophy was renamed the America’s Cup after the winner and was donated to New York Yacht Club under the terms of the Deed of Gift which made the cup available for perpetual international competition that has drawn challengers from around the world ever since with billions of dollars to invest in attempts to lift the trophy.
The event delivers the third-largest economic rewards in sport to host countries, behind the Olympic Games and football’s World Cup, according to a recent study.
As the America’s Cup takes place on a three- to four-year cycle, the World Series, staged in Europe and the US, was introduced to give teams and their sponsoring partners a more sustainable business model and take the best sailors and fastest boats to other venues.
With fleet and match racing over five days, it rounds off with a winner-takes-all finale in which a championship title is awarded.
The 2011-12 season started in Cascais, Portugal, last August and finishes its first season in Newport, Rhode Island, in June having stopped at Plymouth, San Diego, Naples and Venice. The champion of the 2012-13 season will be crowned just prior to the start of the Louis Vuitton Cup (the America’s Cup challenger series) in July 2013.
Simon Greaves is FT.com’s sailing correspondent