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America’s Cup day one: This could be closer than many thought

A fascinating first day of racing for the 2021 America’s Cup saw one win each for Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and Emirates Team New Zealand

The first day of racing in the America’s Cup is always a hotly anticipated moment. Finally, after years of working towards one goal, we get to see who has developed the fastest boat, and who is going to have to fight tooth and nail to stay with the competition.

For this America’s Cup day one we learned a great deal about the protagonists, Defender Emirates Team New Zealand and Challenger Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, but there was no clear advantage to either team over the course of the two races.

We could easily sum up the day’s racing in fairly simple terms, Emirates Team New Zealand won the first start and the first race, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli won the second start and the second race. 

In truth the action from the day was far more nuanced than that and far closer than many expected. This series could easily go down to the wire – if the performance of the two teams and their AC75s is as evenly matched across the entire wind range.

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The race course had a few shifts across the course of the day and the wind for the first race was around 12 knots and built a bit for the second, with both boats electing for a smaller jib for race two. 

First blood to New Zealand in the America’s Cup

Luna Rossa led back towards the startline in the first race, but with both teams needing to kill a little time. Emirates Team New Zealand sat slightly to weather and made a better job of accelerating in time for the start, crossing the line close to windward of the Italians and slightly ahead. 

Jimmy Spithill, steering Luna Rossa on starboard tack, tried for a big luff, which never really looked on and sure enough they gained no penalty on their opposition but lost a lot of ground before being forced to tack away. It was a moment that could easily be construed as an act of desperation from a team who knew they had a slower boat. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it was just an error, plain and simple. 

America's Cup racing, first start

What developed over the course of the remaining upwind legs was a fascinating contest, which continued into the upwind legs of race two. Across all three upwind legs of the opening race, to varying degrees, the Kiwis looked fast in a straight line and looked less inclined to get into a tacking duel with the Italian boat. 

One of the features we saw in the Prada Cup Final when Luna Rossa took on, and beat, INEOS Team UK was the Italian team’s ability to tack incredibly well. This is probably due in part to their twin helm set up but the boat may simply be very manoeuvrable too.    

Although Emirates Team New Zealand did look fast in a straight line, they also seemed to sail a lower angle as compared to Luna Rossa – who we have seen have a very good high mode upwind. “I think [New Zealand] have a fast boat upwind, which is not great all the time,” commented port tack Luna Rossa helm, Francesco Bruni at the end of race one. “If you are not in phase with the pressure then you can lose out by going low and fast.”

His summary is particularly apt looking back at the second beat of the first race, where Emirates Team New Zealand gave Luna Rossa Pirelli Prada a little too much room to breath and let the Italians back into the race somewhat. 

New zealand in the amercia's cup

“We found ourselves on the wrong side of a few [shifts] on that second beat,” explained Emirates Team New Zealand’s helm, Peter Burling. “We didn’t think it was worth the extra manoeuvre but that was probably the wrong call in hindsight. But on that second [beat] we should have [tacked on] them on one of [the crosses].”

Downwind, Emirates Team New Zealand seemed to have a bit of an edge and seemed to be able to sail a touch lower than Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. But, crucially this edge was not enough to see them sail into the distance and in the second race of the day, was not enough to overcome the Italian lead. 

Luna Rossa fight back in race two of the America’s Cup

If Jimmy Spithill made an error in the first start of the America’s Cup, then in the second, it was Peter Burling’s turn to drop the ball. 

The Kiwis tacked to weather of the Italian boat and both sat at a distance from each other in a slow mode. By the time New Zealand finally went for it and bore away back to the line, the clock was against them and it looked like they were both going to be late from a long way out. A small shift compounded the issue and, with New Zealand dropping in behind Luna Rossa, they were forced to tack onto port tack and cross the line. 

The tactics from Luna Rossa leading the upwinds were very different to New Zealand, with the Italians putting a tight cover on the Kiwis, forcing them to tack to the short side of the course as often as possible. Each tack saw a marginal gain to the Italian team, while the Kiwis could claw back metres if they had the chance to sail in a straight line without the cover for any stretch of time.  

This was not something Spithill and Bruni often gave Burling the chance to do and the former sailed an impressively controlled race to keep the Kiwis either in their dirty air or forced into a tacking duel, both of which would ultimately lose the Kiwis ground. 

The only time this was not the case was on the final beat, when Luna Rossa rounded the leeward gate and tacked straight onto port, possibly anticipating a split from the New Zealand boat. However, Burling and co. followed the Italians round the same mark and headed off on starboard tack. 

With a split and Emirates Team New Zealand able to sail their own race a bit more they were able to claw back a decent chunk of distance to put themselves only a 150m or so behind by the final downwind. 

Once again in this race, Emirates Team New Zealand had legs and really closed the gap on the final downwind. It never really looked like they had enough race course left to pull off a pass, but they did get very close indeed and there may have been a tense moment or two onboard the Italian boat. 

Similar speeds, different boats

So we end the day with one win each and us fans (and the sailors) knowing a little more about the two teams – in these condition at least. It looks set to be a fascinating competition. Both boats are fairly evenly matched, but their strengths and weaknesses appear to be in very different areas. 

America's Cup racing day 1

No doubt downwind Emirates Team New Zealand has an edge, but it does not appear to be quite enough to overturn any significant deficit at the top mark. 

Upwind, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli seem to be able to tack faster and also seem to sail higher. New Zealand seems to have the faster package if they are able to sail low and fast, but this advantage necessarily means they are not able to cover as closely and so are prey to getting on the opposite side of a shift than their competition. 

We’ll find out a little more when both boats go racing again on Friday 12th March. As a neutral, I for one am very excited about the coming days.


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