Sir Ben Ainslie will face one of the toughest tests of his career
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Ben Ainslie has made a habit of coming back from seemingly hopeless positions. In 2004 in Athens, he was 19th after the first day of the Olympic regatta. He won gold. In 2012, on home waters, the Incredible Hulk famously emerged after Jonas Hogh-Christensen made Ainslie “angry” by calling him for a penalty. One year later, Ainslie helped Oracle Team USA overturn an 8-1 deficit to triumph 9-8 in the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco.
Ask the four-time Olympic champion where it would rank in his list of achievements if Ineos Team UK were to win the 36th America’s Cup in Auckland in March, though, having been humiliated in the World Series warm-up event just before Christmas, and Ainslie is unequivocal. “This is the toughest [position I have ever been in], I think, because we were absolutely at rock bottom really – we couldn’t have been much worse,” Ainslie said in Auckland before the start of the Prada Cup challenger series on Friday. “In a way, we’ve got nothing to lose now. We’ve been at rock bottom. We’re coming back. So yeah, to get ourselves back on track would be one hell of a turnaround.”
The encouraging news for those hoping that Ainslie might reverse a 170-year trend of British challengers trying and failing to bring the cup back to where it was first staged in 1851, is that the boat is clearly more competitive now.
America’s Cup 2
Ainslie says his team have made modifications to “pretty much everything other than the shape of the hull”, which is forbidden. In particular, Britannia appears to have a new rig and sails, with the new double-skin mainsail and how to control it a key feature of these revolutionary foiling monohulls. The team have also been trying out different foil configurations.
The result is that Britannia is looking a lot more ship-shape. Ainslie posted a video of some final practice racing, side-by-side with the Kiwis, this week, with the New Zealand boat capsizing. “Final practice here in NZ and the teams are pushing harder than ever, too hard at times,” he wrote.
The difficulty is getting used to sailing the boat in the new configuration. Ineos are going to have to do that in the round-robin series, which begins on Friday with races against their two fellow challengers, American Magic and Luna Rossa. They did not manage to beat either before Christmas when they struggled in manoeuvres, particularly in light winds.
Ainslie admits his team’s progress may still be weather-dependent, with American Magic looking more competitive in the heavier winds and Luna Rossa performing well in the light.
But with nine days of round robin racing to come, and the safety net of a repechage, there is still time to get things right.
Whether they do may determine whether Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the team’s billionaire backer, renews for another campaign. He will be in Auckland watching the racing. “Jim’s been absolutely brilliant,” Ainslie said. “Whether or not we continue on with Ineos and with Jim remains to be seen. I think a lot will obviously depend on how things go here, how Jim enjoys his experience here with the team.
“We’re going to be right on the limit. We can see the potential in the boat – whether we’ve got the time to get those modifications done and learn to sail the boat, that’s going to be the deciding factor.”