Italy's LUNA ROSSA not only won the first race of the Louis Vuitton Cup finals, but she had gained enough distance on AMERICA ONE halfway through the match that she was able to do a penalty turn and still retain her lead. Conditions were ideal, with nine to twelve knots of wind and a smooth sea, but as always on the Hauraki Gulf, there were wind shifts that played their part in the outcome.
This final round is a best five out of nine series, with the winner going on to meet New Zealand for the America's Cup beginning February 19. Today's race gave the Italians a 1-0 edge; the second race is scheduled for tomorrow.
After a spirited pre-start ballet LUNA ROSSA established a small overlap to leeward of AMERICA ONE as the big sloops headed back towards the starting line with just over a minute to go. As the overlap was established, Paul Cayard, at the helm of AMERICA ONE, turned sharply to windward and his stern swung into LUNA ROSSA's bow. Although the Italian boat was to leeward - normally the right of way position - she was assessed a penalty for not giving the Americans time and opportunity to keep clear after establishing the overlap. This meant that at some point before the finish she would have to turn through 270 degrees. The match race penalty system requires a boat to jibe if on an upwind leg of the course, or tack if on a downwind leg.
At the post race press conference, LUNA ROSSA tactician Torben Grael took the blame for the foul. "I think we established an overlap a little to close. Paul reacted very suddenly and there was a small contact. At least we are getting good at exonerating ourselves!"
In spite of the foul, LUNA ROSSA, steered by Francesco di Angelis, was able to grab the left end of the starting line and sail into the first favorable shift. It was not a big one, but the Italians tacked onto port and gradually lifted out on AMERICA ONE which had started at the right end of the line on port tack. After nearly five minutes, the American boat tacked back and LUNA ROSSA crossed her by one length. The Italians did not cover closely, but sailed on to the right side of the course.
This was the beginning of the unorthodox tactics that ultimately gave the Italians a big enough edge to do their penalty turn and not lose their lead. Because it requires a lead of about 40 seconds to do the turn, di Angelis and Grael decided to play the wind shifts rather than covering their opponent closely. By covering, they should have been able to maintain a lead, but probably could not have worked out far enough to do the penalty turn and stay ahead.
It was gutsy sailing as one shift in the wrong direction while the boats were widely separated could have cost LUNA ROSSA most or all of her lead and the game would be over. By getting to the right, the Italians seemed to find a little more wind pressure and held a 25 second lead at the first weather mark - not enough to chance a turn. Down the first run LUNA ROSSA played it straight and stayed between AMERICA ONE and the mark. It was a drag race, and the Italian boat managed to outpace her rival again to round onto the weather leg with a lead of 33 seconds.
It was on this second beat to windward that LUNA ROSSA really took a chance in an effort to gain the distance she needed. The match race edict of "cover your opponent at all cost" was tossed aside. On the second tack of the leg, LUNA ROSSA allowed Cayard and crew to head far left while the Italians continued on port tack almost to the starboard tack lay line before tacking back. It was a big gamble, but again it paid, and as LUNA ROSSA approached the weather mark on starboard tack she had a lead of more than a minute. Instead of tacking to round the buoy, she jibed, turning through the required 270 degrees and had enough edge left to lead by 25 seconds at the turn. It was exactly the same lead she had held at the weather mark on the first beat.
LUNA ROSSA's performance up that leg was partially due to a subtle wind shift to the right, but there was no question that she was also sailing just a bit faster than the American boat. The big question was why Cayard allowed the Italians to get so far away when they had a penalty turn to do. Being only 33 seconds behind, and with LUNA ROSSA facing a turn that would cost her at least that much time, AMERICA ONE was theoretically in the lead and might have done better by sticking as close as possible to the Italians.
On the second run of the three times around, windward leeward course, the Italians again increased their lead - this time by nine seconds - and rounded onto the final weather leg 34 seconds ahead.
With the penalty turn behind them and a comfortable lead, di Angelis and Grael reverted to standard operating procedure for the first part of the leg and covered Cayard closely. But twice towards the upper part of the beat they allowed AMERICA ONE to get well to the left of them before sailing back towards the center of the course. This time they did not pull further ahead, but dropped a boat length, arriving at the turn with a 28 second lead.
On the run to the finish, the Italians were given a few anxious moments as AMERICA ONE, to weather and behind and with both boats on the starboard jibe, came up on a puff of wind and drew almost abreast. LUNA ROSA jibed away looking for her own piece of extra wind, but when she jibed back towards the American boat, her lead was down to little more than a length. She jibed directly in front of AMERICA ONE, and again she seemed a bit faster. Each boat jibed twice more, but LUNA ROSSA's maneuvers were smoother and she pulled away to cross the line with a lead of 25 seconds.
Another questionable move on the part of AMERICA ONE was having assistant tactician Morgan Larson stationed up the mast at the top spreaders from before the start to well up the first leg. He was there to spot wind shifts, but he was also causing windage and reducing the boat's stability. Later he said, ... "today was probably a time when I shouldn't have been up the mast. At probably 12 to 13 knots of wind, somewhere in there, I become too much windage and slowed the boat down. You have to try to decide whether being up there and seeing some better wind is going to make the difference, or if it's going to slow us down."
At the press conference, there were comments from both skippers on how close the boats were in straight-line speed, but how, on several occasions, LUNA ROSSA gained by having a bit more pressure (wind strength) on her side of the course. Could it be that the Italian boat is just a bit faster most of the time, and that neither skipper wants to talk about it this early in the series?
Having swept through the semifinals with nine wins out of 10 starts, AMERICA ONE was given a slight psychological advantage going into the finals. When LUNA ROSSA won today, in spite of having to do a penalty turn, any advantage to the American crew faded away. The assumption that the Italians would wilt under pressure was put to bed when they remained calm after incurring the pre-start penalty and then methodically worked far enough ahead to write off the penalty and go on to win.
The author of LUNA ROSSA's unorthodox race strategy, which frequently sees the Italians playing the wind patterns instead of the opposition, is tactician Torben Grael, a popular and good natured Brazilian known to the inner circle of competitive sailing as one of the best in the world. Grael has won gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals, has won the Star Class world championship, has been second three times and third twice, and has won the Snipe world championship three times.