Ineos Team UK still have a mountain to climb in the Prada Cup final – but at least they have a foot on the ladder.
The British team finally won a race on Saturday, to breathe some life and confidence into their campaign.
There is still a feeling that is too little, too late – with no sense that the 2013 miracle of San Francisco is about to be revisited in Auckland – as Luna Rossa lead 5-1 in the series, and only need two more wins from a possible seven races.
The British have little margin for error, but they will hope that momentum can swing following their vital 14-second win in the second race on Saturday.
They were under immense pressure – after the Italians had won the first race by 80 seconds – but responded well, winning the start, then gaining the critical first cross.
At the end the relief was palpable on the Ineos boat, not quite high fives, but not far away.
“Obviously a bit happier with a win than on the wrong side of it over the last few racing days,” said Sir Ben Ainslie after the race. “Our guys did a great job.
“They are not going to give up these boys, they are going to keep fighting the whole way, they keep pushing all the way. To get one back is what we needed.”
Ainslie also paid tribute to his tireless grinders – “I owe them many, many beers, that’s for sure”.
The result was a double boost given the lighter conditions on Saturday, which should favour Luna Rossa, though the breeze had picked up slightly for the second race (12-13 knots).
But it meant Ineos Team UK had a delicate balancing act; trying to stay ahead and cover Luna Rossa, but also not over-doing the manoeuvres, given they still look wobbly at times during transitions.
Ainslie and tactician Giles Scott got the equation right, even if there were nervy moments, especially when the lead was cut to barely 50 metres towards the end of the fifth leg.
“Giles did a great job,” asserted Ainslie. “We were trying to shepherd them around a bit, we didn’t want to get into a tacking duel.”
Earlier, in his now or never moment, Ainslie got the pre-start just right, and led slightly off the line. The first cross was tight – but favoured the British – before another close second cross.
Ineos Team UK led by eight seconds at the first gate, marking the first time they have won a leg in this series.
The rest of the race was a fascinating duel, with the Italians ready to pounce on any mistake. Luna Rossa sailed a brilliant fourth leg – to cut the deficit from 32 seconds to nine – but the British hung on to bank their vital win.
The first race was a one-sided affair in the end, but featured the best pre-start duel of the series.
Ainslie was desperate and looked to have set Britannia up nicely a minute out from the start. But he didn’t count on a wonderful piece of skill from the Italians, who slowed their boat down, without coming off the foils.
“Obviously it is a very fine line between staying high and slow and staying too high and slow,” explained Luna Rossa co-helmsman Francesco Bruni.
“We did a good job – kept the boat on the edge.”
Ainslie was trapped, though he tried to squeeze into a gap that was never there, with metres between Luna Rossa and the mark.
It was thrilling stuff – like something you might see at the Indy 500 – but the British attempt to barge into space incurred a penalty.
Spithill led off the line and soon extended, leading by a minute at the halfway point, as Ineos slipped further and further behind.
The British bounced back in the second race, but will need more miracles on Sunday and Monday, though Spithill was playing down the Italian advantage.
“It’s always one race at a time,” said Spithill. “You never really think about the end result. The data has shown the boats are really similar.”
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