Who are these Italians who have survived the toughest ever challenger series to win the right to race against New Zealand for the America's Cup? They are businessmen, entrepreneurs, world sailing champions and superb athletes.
Leader of the team is Patrizio Bertelli, who married Miuccia Prada twelve years ago and then guided the Prada fashion house into an international conglomerate that is one of the world's most successful businesses. Bertelli is an experienced and enthusiastic racing sailor, who in the early stages of the Louis Vuitton challenger series sailed aboard LUNA ROSSA frequently as the 17th man. This is an honorary position that allows no participation in sailing the boat, but provides the best spectator seat in the house. When LUNA ROSSA lost her mast in the semi finals he decided he must be bringing bad luck and gave up his place aboard.
One of the problems with America's Cup financing is that prospective sponsors like to know the effort will be successful before they make a commitment. However, the biggest and most important expenditures are in research and design, which must come at the beginning of the campaign. So getting a challenge off the ground with the early financing that will give the best chance of ultimate success is very difficult. Because Bertelli was underwriting the Italian effort with his own resources, in the same way that American Bill Koch did in his successful 1992 operation, he was able to make decisive and astute moves early in the game.
He bought two of Koch's boats, including the newest, Mighty Mary, all of Koch's research and computer codes and most of his logistic support equipment. Then he went after an all-star design team and hired American Doug Peterson and Argentinean German Frers. Peterson had been with Koch's winning design group in 1992 and was co-designer for Team New Zealand when they took the Cup to Auckland in 1995. He came to the Italian party with a lot of intellectual presents. Frers had been chief designer for the 1992 Italian challenge that won the Louis Vuitton series and then lost the America's Cup to the Koch juggernaut. Both Frers and Peterson had to take up residence in Italy two years before the first scheduled race of the 2000 series in order to qualify under the country of origin rules.
Also moving to Italy early were British boat builders Ian King and Bill Green, along with their team of carbon fiber and composite construction experts, who were hired by Bertelli to move to Milan and build the two LUNA ROSSAs.
As his skipper Berteilli tapped 37 year old (now 40) Francesco de Angelis, a native of Naples who won the J-24 world championship in 1987, and at the helm of Italian grand prix racers MANDRAKE and BRAVA, won titles in the ILC 40 and One Ton Cups five times. The six foot five inch helmsman has an easy smile and very calm demeanor. Through the toughest of times leading to the Italian victory in the Louis Vuitton Cup, de Angelis's voice could be heard over the on-board sound system instructing his crew to keep their composure and focus on sailing the boat. He spoke only when he felt it was necessary and most of the time was the picture of concentration, allowing tactician Torben Grael to provide the verbal input that kept LUNA ROSSA in the express lane.
With all the talk of super stars scattered throughout the challenger fleet, the brightest of all may well be Brazilian native Grael, who lists on his record the Star Boat World Championship, along with a second and a third in that most competitive of classes, Olympic Gold, Silver and Bronze medals, and five World Championships in the Snipe Class. This is a man who has stared down the stresses of world caliber sailing for decades, and although he made some wrong calls in the challenger trials, they were fewer than anyone else's. In the last two races of the final series against AMERICA ONE, he shaped LUNA ROSSA's victories with surgical skill, easing his boat into the lead on the opening leg each time, and then cutting off the passing lanes.
Throughout the rest of the Italian sailing team are Whitbread Race veterans, world champion crews, and some winch grinders who have not been outworked by any other boat's men of muscle.
But perhaps the most important quality the Italians take to the doorstep of the New Zealand defenders, is the experience of winning the Louis Vuitton Cup. They have come out on top in a series that saw 202 races sailed between October 18 and February 6. Through it all, the superiority of their boat and crew has seldom been in question and their five to four win over AMERICA ONE has set them up to meet the Kiwis like no other preparation could possibly have done.