The only way is up
At 26 years of age Sébastien Schneiter may be the youngest skipper on the SailGP circuit but he also is no stranger to leading a top flight professional team to success
The Switzerland SailGP Team may be new to SailGP this season but the Swiss syndicate led by 26-year-old Sébastien Schneiter in fact originates from the young skipper’s Team Tilt – a well established top performing squad on the European GC32 Racing Tour for the last several years.
Team Tilt won the GC32 World Championship title in 2017 and the following year were named Swiss sailing team of the year. At the recent GC32 worlds in Lagos Portugal this year the team finished fourth.
In parallel, Schneiter has also been successful as an Olympic campaigner in the 49er class having established himself as a regular top ten finisher on the international circuit and representing his country at the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Games.
Schneiter told me that the Team Tilt concept had been born at the 2013 Youth America’s Cup in San Francisco when the fledgling team finished fourth overall and has been evolving ever since.
“The goal with that project was really to give an opportunity to young Swiss sailors to race at an international level against the best sailors in the world.,” he said.
“We started with the Youth America’s Cup and then we moved on to the GC32s and now it is sort of a natural evolution to become a part of SailGP. That’s really the ultimate step for us and to be now racing in this league is a really proud milestone moment for the team.”
It took around two and a half years from first making contact with the SailGP organisation to finally get a deal in place for the Swiss team to join the other eight international teams in Bermuda this May for the start of the international circuit’s third season.
Subscribe for free to be notified whenever we post stories on SGP Insider. Paid subscribers can access to exclusive content.
But rather than a smooth transition of the sailing squad from one crew uniform to another in the end Schneiter was forced to start almost from scratch to put together his SailGP lineup. In many ways the team was a victim of its own success.
Having carefully nurtured the development of so many talented young Swiss sailors they found themselves unable to hold on to them when the talent scouts from rebooted America’s Cup challenger Alinghi Red Bull Racing came calling.
“We announced our SailGP entry last summer and then after that it was about building the team,” Schneiter explains. “We had developed a lot of sailors through Team Tilt but unfortunately due to some bad timing this winter we lost them to other projects with the America’s Cup. We have been able to keep some of our sailors but we have had to rebuild pretty much from zero.”
Despite the setback Schneiter said he was philosophical about Alinghi’s raiding party.
“In all honesty, it was kind of a proud moment to have all these sailors that we had been building up over the years get selected by Alinghi for the Swiss America’s Cup campaign. I guess it is an indicator that we did some good work with Team Tilt.”
As a new team on the SailGP for their first season the Swiss have been able to draft in some foreign talent and experience in the form of flight controller Jason Saunders (NZL), wing trimmer Stuart Bilthell (GBR) and grinder Richard Mason (GBR).”
Backing them up are Swiss sailors: Eliot Merceron, Julien Henri Rolaz (grinders) Laurane and Elodie Mettraux, Maja Siegenthaler and Maud Jayet (strategists), and reserve sailor Jeremy Bachelin.
Coaching the squad is Italian 49er sailor and Luna Rossa team member Jacopo Plazzi.
“I know Jacopo well from the 49er class where we have been sailing against each other a lot in the past,” Schneiter said. “In the last America’s Cup he was with the Italian team and now he is doing the two projects in parallel and he is helping us with all his experience with super high-tech boats and all the data that gets generated.”
Schneiter is keen to highlight the off the water support given to the team both by the team CEO Tanguy Cariou and Scheitner’s father Alex.
Cariou is a highly experienced professional sailor in his own right who went to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in the 470 class, while Alex Scheitner is a successful businessman as well as an accomplished yacht racer.
“Tanguy has played a huge part in putting everything together and we have been able to take advantage of the business experience of my dad who has been helping us to find some partners for the campaign,” Schneiter said.
As a new team on the circuit Schneiter said the squad had leaned heavily on the database of shared data gathered from all nine boats every time they race and made available to all the teams.
Without this data Schneiter said the task of trying to match the level of the experienced teams would be considerably harder.
“Even though we are a new team we can look at the best crews like the Australians and the British and really analyse exactly what they are doing,” he said.
“At the moment we are really at a stage where we just try to copy them. Hopefully in the near future we will be able to find our own way to do it but for now it is just about trying to get to their level.”
Likewise, before they could get their hands on their new F50 foiling catamaran the Switzerland SailGP sailors also made good use of the Artemis Technologies F50 simulator facility located in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Schneiter said the six days they spent in the darkened high tech room was time well spent but believes now they have access to a real F50 the need for simulator time is diminished.
“I think the simulator is really valuable for a new team like us just before sailing on the F50 to get used to the set up, the hardware, to learn where all the buttons are and what they do,” he said.
“Before the Bermuda event we did nearly a week in the simulator – and I think that was enough. I don’t think doing more days would have been so valuable.
“In a straight line the simulator is quite realistic, but the manoeuvres are very different and obviously you have a lot less feeling for the boat. I think it is a great tool to get you started but once you have been sailing the boat I am not sure you need to go back into the room.”
Along with fellow newcomers the Canada SailGP Team, the Swiss crew was given 20 extra days in addition to the week of training allocated to the established teams prior to the Season 3 opening event in Bermuda earlier this year.
Daily sailing sessions were restricted to two hours per day so the pressure was constantly on maximising the efficiency of the team’s on the water time.
“We tried to be as productive as we could and I think at the end of the training time we could sail the boat really well on our own,” Scheitner said. “So that was a good time to join in with the rest of the fleet and learn how to do it with other boats around.”
Schneiter remembers the windy first full practice day as a “bit of a baptism of fire” for the team. “I think it was not the easiest conditions to be starting out with but from the first to the fourth race I feel like we improved a great deal,” he said afterwards.
The Switzerland SailGP Team finished bottom of the table in both Bermuda and Chicago but a deeper dive into the results shows that often they are capable of duking it out with established teams for the mid fleet results.
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, given that the Swiss outfit is well resourced, has young fit talented sailors, and is not afraid to bring in expert help when require (Nathan Outteridge is working with them in Plymouth this week ahead of the British Sail Grand Prix) it’s hard to believe that race wins and overall podium places can be too far away.