Spanish shine in Plymouth practice session on eve of Great Britain Sail Grand Prix
Jordi Xammar’s crew were the most consistent over the three practice races but there were also race wins for New Zealand, Australia, and Great Britain
The waterfront Plymouth, England was abuzz with anticipation today on the eve of the British leg of the SailGP global high-performance yacht racing circuit.
Under clear blue skies and bathed in warm UK summer sunshine the historic Plymouth Hoe was at its picturesque best as the nine international crews engaged in three official practice races out on Plymouth Sound.
The teams won’t race in anger until tomorrow when large crowds are expected to throng the waterfront to see the fleet of remarkable foiling F50 catamarans racing full tilt around a short and tightly restricted racecourse.
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Although today was just practice, the racing attracted plenty of interest from locals and holidaymakers along the seafront. Even the giant-sized seagulls circling over the promenade in the hope of snaffling some stray chips from unwary tourists also seemed to have a weather eye on the antics of the fast foiling catamarans.
The question on the lips of diehard SailGP fans everywhere as we head into this weekend’s third event of Season 3 is who – if anyone – can derail Tom Slingsby’s Australian team from their prolonged six event winning streak.
Remarkably, the last time the Aussies didn’t win an event was in France back in Season 2. Slingsby and Co. also won here in Plymouth last year and have proved dominant so far in Season 3 after winning in Bermuda and in Chicago.
Despite his team’s enviable form, which surely makes them the favourites this weekend, at this morning’s skippers’ press conference Slingsby was keen to play down any talk of his team being unassailable.
“We are definitely beatable,” he said. “For sure we are on a great streak at the moment but I am not even thinking about that. I’m just trying to do well here.”
Slingsby also acknowledged that good fortune had played its part in the team’s successes along the way after on more than one occasion having had to claw their way back into contention following poor performances on the opening day.
“Luck has gone our way a little for sure,” he said. “We’ve somehow managed to pull it out of the bag and we sneak into the final. Often we then end up grateful to have pulled it off in the final race.”
Slingsby paid tribute to the quality of his crew who he said never ever let their heads drop in the face of adversity.
“The guys have also performed really well in the pressure situations. For me it is really good to know that I have got a team that when the going gets tough they are going to be there and no one is going to shy away from a challenge.”
“Our winning streak is going to come to an end, whether it is this weekend or the next event it is going to happen. So we have just got to concentrate on – when that happens – how we rebound and rebuild the team.
“We don’t want to fall off the cliff like we have done in the past, when we have won events and then finished last in the next. That’s what we can’t afford to happen this weekend.”
Local support will of course be behind the British team led by Knight of the Realm Sir Ben Ainslie who finished second in the season three opening event in Bermuda and third in last month’s Chicago event.
Ainslie – who missed the Plymouth event last season for the birth of his second child – said it was nice to be back in the West Country – close to where he grew up on the estuary of the river Fal – and nice to be racing in front of a home crowd.
“That’s always a huge motivation to give that extra push to turn it on for the home crown and bring it home,” he said.
Ainslie described Plymouth as ‘a unique venue and perfect for SailGP racing’ and predicted a spectacular event – particularly in light of a good weather and wind forecast for the weekend.
“It is great for SailGP because we have this natural amphitheatre up here on the Hoe and then the breakwater out there helps to keep the water relatively flat – which is perfect for these F50s,” he said.
“I think the forecast for this weekend is for some good breeze and we should be able to really turn it on. We have seen from the last two events that it is really tight racing and I think we should really just expect more of the same.
“With the forecast for the weekend I think it will be SailGP at its best.”
Ainslie was quick to play down talk that his British crew might be able to use home advantage to unseat the Australians this weekend.
“I missed the event last year so I am probably a bit down on experience of racing on Plymouth Sound compared with some of the other sailors,” he pointed out.
Nevertheless he conceded that there was a fierce rivalry between him and Slingsby.
“I think, inevitably, when you get Brits and Aussies going at each other in sport you are always going to get a bit of niggle,” he said. “Which is great – I think that’s why we all compete, because we want to be racing against the best talent.
“Tom and his team have really been turning it on through the end of last season and going into this season. But that said, I think all of these teams have the ability to win. We were training yesterday against the Danish team and they were going just fine.
“So yes, we have got some [specific] rivalries – and it is good to have that motivation – but any of these teams can come out and win these events.”
Responding, Slingsby said that the level in the fleet had gone up so much this season that the idea of focusing on a rivalry with a specific team would be unwise.
“We love playing up the rivalry but for us it’s another event we have got to do here – and we have got to do well. Competing against Ben and his team on home waters for sure you know you are competing against the best.”
If today’s official practice race session taught us anything it is that trying to predict the podium places for this weekend’s main event is a mug’s game.
The day’s three races were sailed in winds ranging from light and shifty in race one to damn near perfect by the finish of the race three and saw three different teams take the winning gun.
In the opening race of the day Peter Burling’s New Zealand crew – racing for the first time with Olympic 470 medallist Jo Aleh in the strategists role won the start at the windward end of the line and went on to sail a composed race to take a comfortable win.
Ainslie’s British crew were second for much of the race but chose the wrong side of the final run and were pipped on the finish line by the red Spanish boat helmed by Jordi Xammar.
When Ainslie was relegated to the back of the fleet after a premature start in race two, Slingsby took full advantage to cruise to an easy victory ahead of an increasingly confident looking Xammar in second.
The third and final race of the day say Ainslie nail the start and round the first turning mark well ahead. From there there no mistakes from the British crew as they cruised to a win that they will be hoping sets them up for tomorrow’s first day of full competition.
Practice racing is of course just that: practice, and often is a poor indicator of form for the main event. That sail we can surely expect the usual front running British and Australian teams to feature tomorrow – although there will no doubt be some intense debriefing going on tonight at the Canadian team bases after an uncharacteristicly uncertain performance from Phil Robertson’s men and women.
The Spanish will also be encouraged by their boat of the day performance and my personal recommendation is to keep an eye on the Quentin Delapierre’s all-French-speaking crew who looked to be quietly gaining confidence with every race.
There’s good news in the forecast too. Although it’s expected to be cloudier than today in Plymouth, winds are forecast to be stronger at race time – up at around 14 knots.