Canadians sparkle on opening day at SailGP Chicago
A 4,1,1 scoreline sees Phil Robertson’s Canada SailGP crew put paid to any doubts that the team’s podium result in Bermuda last month might have been a flash in the pan.
When a rock band rockets to overnight success with its debut release there are always lots of nerves about whether that ‘tricky second album’ will live up to expectations.
In Chicago today on day one of the second SailGP regatta of the global high performance circuit’s third season, Phil Robertson’s Canada SailGP crew quickly put paid to any doubts that the team’s podium result at their very first event in Bermuda last month could have been a flash in the pan.
Robertson was in imperious form on the start line in all three races and the red Canadian boat was in the mix at the front of the fleet at the first turning mark in all three races – and from then on there were few mistakes from the five men and one woman aboard the Canadian F50 foiling catamaran.
In race one they had to settle for fourth behind Peter Burling’s New Zealand and Ben Ainslie's Great Britain. But in races two and three after getting their nose in front at the first downwind turn they sailed with supreme composure to clock up back-to-back race wins.
That impressive 4,1,1 scoreline sees them atop of the leaderboard tonight ahead of Sunday’s final day of racing in Chicago which will see two more qualifying races before a winner takes all three-way final race.
Robertson conceded it had been a satisfying day on the water for the Canadians. He denied having to dampen down any lingering euphoria from the Bermuda event amongst the crew, pointing out that: “The enthusiasm definitely got dampened down when we capsized on the first day of training.”
“Everyone,” he told me, “Is at ground zero for sure and we are under no illusion that we have so much to learn.
“We were actually pretty ropey [during the warm up to the Chicago event], “ he said. “But when it has come to racing we have been able to string it together when it’s needed – and that is a testimony to how hard everyone has been working.”
An unusual configuration of the racecourse located off Chicago’s Navy Pier meant the crews could choose between starting inside or outside a gap in a breakwater located perilously close to the startline. Starting outside meant you could get a good run up to your start at the windward end of the line, while the inside option meant you would have to start at the leeward end.
Robertson nailed the windward end in all three races and in races two and three was able to power over the rest of the fleet hurtling along the first reach to round the first turning mark in the lead.
“Our starting was one of our strengths today and on a course like this if you can get out around mark one in the top position it’s easy to stay there,” Robertson said. “But if you are back in the pack then you are really scrapping for the pieces.”
“Today was a day when Billy [Gooderham] again did a great job on the flight control – as did Chris [Draper] on the wing, and the grinders in the front as well worked bloody hard too – and that’s why we were able to sneak over the top on the first reach in the last two races.
Sitting in second place tonight is Ben Ainslie’s British team who clocked up a consistent 2,3,2 scoreline to lie just one point behind the Canadians after starting well at the leeward end in all three races.
It was a strategy that Ainslie told me after racing the team had decided upon because they believed it was slightly less risky than the outside option.
“It was a really tough decision between going outside the breakwater and coming ripping in with speed or being inside and having a bit more control. We practiced it of course before race one and thought we had a reasonable strategy for that approach.”
“I don’t think we ever thought it was a mark one winning strategy,” Ainslie said – but it was going to get you in the top few and from there you can sail your own race.”
Rather than push for the win in the first and last races Ainslie admitted the team had instead opted to consolidate their second places.
“There were times when we thought about doing something a bit more radical and trying to have a go at gaining a place,” he said. “But at this stage in the competition we figured it was better to hang in there. As painful as it was following the lead boat around it wasn’t worth the risk of taking a punt and losing a spot.”
A better day for Peter Burling’s New Zealand crew saw the two-time America’s Cup winning helmsman looking more relaxed in the media mix zone tonight than we have seen him for quite a while.
A win in the first race – despite a malfunctioning daggerboard system – followed by a fifth and a fourth in races two and three, puts the Kiwis in third place overnight three points behind the Brits.
So what, I asked Burling after racing, was different about the New Zealand crew’s performance today?
“We have been making some pretty big improvements as a team for a one time and it felt like today was a lot more about putting it all together and making it all work,” he said.
“It was great to be able to execute a lot of things well. We got off the line well to a nice start in that first race and we turned in a nice performance there. We didn’t quite execute as well in the next two but we were in a solid enough position that we could then chip away and get good results.
There was frustration nevertheless from the New Zealand skipper after the Chicago event’s first three races in which he rued dropping valuable places in races two and three.
It’s frustrating not to get better results than we did,” he said. “We felt like we had a good opportunity to get second in that last race and slipped to fourth, and we had a really good chance to get third in the middle one but slipped one back as well.”
Forecasts for tomorrow’s second and final day of racing call for ultra light winds in the morning and the race committee has made the decision to use the largest wing option with the F50 fleet overnight being fitted with the whopping 29 metre wings.