After the hype and speculation dockside, ultimately it was form that shone through as Emirates Team New Zealand put on a dominant masterclass to win all three of the Practice Races in style. The tone for the day was set earlier at the Official Press Conference by Tom Slingsby, skipper for NYYC American Magic, who ramped up the competitiveness of the regatta saying: «It’s huge. As a team we haven’t raced much together so it’s a chance to improve as a team and in equal boats, if we beat whoever it would give us a mental edge to know that our team can beat your team in equal boats. I happen to think the mental game is very important in the America’s Cup.»
However, from the very first start, Emirates Team New Zealand were all muscle and power as they led a chasing pack back in on starboard, crossed the line at pace with perfect time-on-distance and then could pretty much sail their own race from there. Once ahead in all three races, and they had to work hard at times to overcome the challenges of both American Magic and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, the Kiwis led by Peter Burling and Nathan Outteridge had the complete measure of the marginal foiling conditions sub 10 knots.
Speaking afterwards, Burling was keeping a lid on expectations saying: «Just keeping the boat on the foils today as the wind dropped below 6 knots was key and the guys did a pretty good job going through the puffs and the manoeuvres. We got some pretty good lanes, good clear air and we’re just excited to get out there racing, it’s been something we’ve been aiming at as a group for a long time getting racing underway in this America’s Cup. We’ve also got a massive development programme going on as well, so probably more than half the sailing team’s goal is to make sure we’ve got a boat fast enough to win the America’s Cup but to have these little check-ins to see that we’re near the top is great and we don’t get many opportunities to learn and race so we’re making the most of it.»
For the others it was a day of mixed fortunes. NYYC American Magic looked rapid in the opening race and quickly established themselves as stand-out challengers to the Kiwis in this regatta whilst Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli were always there with great starts and consistency through their manoeuvres. Ultimately boatspeed, cruel luck and decision-making at crucial moments let the Americans and Italians down but the next three days, when the races really matter towards the series, are well set-up for a desperately close battle.
Michael Menninger, Trimmer for NYYC American Magic fully understood where the level is at saying: «We don’t feel like we have to do anything crazy to win, just trust the process and take it one step at the time. These events for us are important as we want to improve every day and get better as a team.»
Outside of the top three teams, it was a day of mixed fortunes, flashes of brilliance but ultimately a dawning realisation of the level that the top three teams are performing at. Ben Ainslie, Skipper of INEOS Britannia was realistic, saying: «Plenty of catching up for us to do and in that light airs stuff it’s all about getting the settings right and it shows the lack of time we’ve had in the boat just how far off we are off these other teams. We’re definitely worried about it, and we spent an extra hour and a half after the racing out there trying to figure it out and the good news is that we can learn from these other teams that are a bit more polished in the boat and try to close the gap – that’s what we’ve got to do.»
Arnaud Psarofaghis: «Tricky day. A lot of learnings. It’s always good to make some silly mistakes on a training day. Small mistakes really put you out of the race, but we have to be patient as anything can happen on a light breeze racecourse with others dropping off the foils but to be honest, I think there were some basic things where we made a mistake but I’m glad we did it today.»
Practice races in sailing attract their own folklore but the ability of the Kiwis to front-run effectively or hunt down relentlessly from behind has sent shockwaves through the America’s Cup dockside. Can they back-up today’s form with another dominant performance tomorrow? We shall have to wait and see