Kiwis on top again as French Riviera delivers knife-edge racing on opening day at France Sail Grand Prix
New Zealand and Australia clash as the Americans return to form and the French get within a hair of 100 kilometres per hour milestone
Gusty winds up to 30 knots on the waters off St. Tropez made for a thrilling day of racing on the opening day of the France Sail Grand Prix today.
With the nine international crews fighting to keep control of their foiling F50 catamarans throughout the day’s three races it was two time America’s Cup winner Peter Burling’s New Zealand SailGP Team who excelled in the fresh-to-frightening conditions with a 1,4,1 scoreline that sees them top the leaderboard tonight.
Two points adrift in second is Jimmy Spithill’s much-improved American team who started well all day and went on to sail three relatively trouble free races, despite the challenging conditions.
Third overall for the day are the reigning SailGP champions Tom Slingsby’s Australia SailGP Team who had to scramble to repair their boat after a huge nosedive on the final reaching leg of the first race. They came back strong to win race two and a seventh in the final race sees them five points behind the Americans and just one in front of the hometown team, Quentin Delapierre’s France SailGP Team.
There may well have been some strong words exchanged on the dock tonight between Slingsby and Burling with the Australian blaming his Kiwi rival for causing the crash down un-necessarily as the pair reached neck and neck to the finish at breakneck speed. Fearing that Slingsby was about to overtake to windward Burling put in a strong luff that in an effort to avoid the leeward boat resulted in the Australian boat nose diving spectacularly and burying its bows up to the mast.
“All this damage for something so stupid,” a disgruntled Slingsby told SailGP commentator Stevie Morrison as the Aussie shore crew and SailGP tech team staff raced to repair numerous holes in the boat’s front fairings.
“I don’t really understand what was going on there,” Slingsby said. “We were just trying to get across the finish line – it’s race one of the series and we are being luffed at over 50 knots. We would have happily given him the position.”
“All this extra damage because Pete Burling wants an extra point, it’s ridiculous,” he lamented.
Despite racing with the shortest (18 metre) configuration of the F50 wing configurations and with the small high speed foils, and rudder winglets, the extreme conditions meant the pace of the action was breathtaking with the crews constantly on the edge of control and having to de-power their boats to avoid disaster.
The big breeze saw a new SailGP speed record established as the French team – on their way to a well-earned and crowd-pleasing second place in the third and final race of the day – touched a mind boggling 99.9 kilometres per hour (53.46 knots).
After the race Delapierre admitted to not being aware of getting within a hair of the 100 km/h milestone and was just happy to have finished the day with the French boat intact.
“To be honest I didn’t look at the boatspeed. It was tricky today – really rough conditions with a lot of cavitation on the foils so the boat starts to do a lot of vibrating. To be honest I am most pleased about still having the boat in one piece.”
Lighter conditions are expected for tomorrow’s second day of racing with winds from the south east in the nine to 11 knot range. That will mean a busy night for the SailGP wing team who will have to disassemble all nine rigs to switch them back to the all-purpose mid range set up.
After a welcome decision by the SailGP management to sail three fleet races – rather than just two, previously – before the final three way shoot-out between the podium teams there is still plenty to play for with France and Ben Ainslie’s fifth place Great Britain team.
The British sailed with a black stripe on their starboard bow and an insignia in honour of the late Queen Elizabeth II and had to settle for second in the opening race despite having led for much of it. Gear failure forced them out of the second race but having fought back to fourth in race three they sit on 18 points tonight – two away from a final spot.
Speaking shortly after the thrilling first race concluded Ainslie said today’s conditions were some of the toughest he had experienced..
“That's one of the most extreme races I have been involved in,” he said. “We had a good start and we were in the lead but boat handling in these conditions is really tough – you can see that across the fleet.
“It’s been a tough week all round obviously for Great Britain but we are out here trying to do our best to represent the country – and our new king.”