Light winds on the Hauraki Gulf today saw America One take over the lead in the Louis Vuitton Cup semi finals by decisively dispatching Stars & Stripes. France's Le Defi registered her first win in a close match with America True, and Luna Rossa continued her comeback by sailing away from Japan's Asura.
The two top boats from this round sail the Louis Vuitton finals beginning January 25, and the winner of that match goes on to challenge New Zealand for the America's Cup in a best of nine series beginning February 19.
By defeating Team Dennis Conner by nearly three minutes today America One uncovered the expected weakness in the San Diego boat's armor. She is not a fast boat in light airs, and in spite of having the most experienced crew in the regatta she will have difficulty staying in the hunt unless winds of more than 14 knots return to the race area.
At the helm of America One Paul Cayard got off the line at the right hand end and played the shifts on that side to jump into an early lead over Stars & Stripes. He led by more than a minute at the weather mark and was not threatened during the rest of the race. America One tactician John Kostecki used a bit of understatement after the race when he said, "We were quite happy with the speed of 61 in those conditions." USA 61 is the team's second boat and had not seen action until the Louis Vuitton Cup semi finals. She appears to be at her best in light to medium conditions.
The Stars & Stripes team also has a cloud hanging over its head in the form of a hearing, due to take place Sunday, which will determine what penalty will be handed to her for sailing the opening race of the series with a rudder not made in the U.S.A. or in New Zealand. The "country of origin" regulations stipulate that a boat may use underwater devices (keel, rudder, wings etc.) made in the home country or in New Zealand, provided they are designed by a national of the country. It has been determined that the rudder on Stars & Stripes last Sunday was made in Australia, but designed by Team Dennis Conner designers.
One report out of Auckland yesterday suggested that a breach of the country of origin part of the Protocol between the challengers and the defending New Zealanders, could disqualify Stars & Stripes from competing in the America's Cup, even if she wins the trials. Others feel that simply re-sailing the race in question would exonerate the California boat from any further penalty.
Team Dennis Conner helmsman Ken Read said at the post race press conference, that he had tried to distance himself from the rudder controversy. "As the head of the sailing part of the program" he said, " I'm concentrating really hard to not know anything about it. Our whole team firmly believes that everything we have done has been 100 % OK."
The French win over San Francisco Yacht Club's America True pulled Le Defi out of her embarrassing minus one-half point hole and got her onto the scorecard, but the defeat of Dawn Riley's co-ed entry puts her in a weak position , with only one win to her credit. However, America True and Stars & Stripes have a make-up race to sail at the end of the series, as they missed Race Four while Conner's boat was being repaired, following her set-to with Le Defi in Race Three. The French were assessed a half point penalty for making contact with Stars & Stripes in that race.
The French had suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds, some bad luck, and lack of heavy weather speed in previous matches, but today they put together a virtually errorless race. Helmsman Bertrand Pace broke away from the tenacious harassment of America True's aggressive helmsman John Cutler with less than a minute to go before the start and got away at the favored right hand end of the line. The French boat worked the shifts effectively to arrive at the weather mark with a lead of 21 seconds.
They edged away from the Californians on the first run and then added more on the second weather leg to hold a lead of 1:18 at the weather mark. However, in the early parts of the third beat America True picked the shifts to perfection and closed to within two boat lengths at the midway point, only to see Le Defi get back in phase and pull away again. The bright orange French boat had a lead of 44 seconds at the weather pin and held most of this down the final run to win by 36 seconds.
The French team had spent the night fitting a new trim tab. This crucial flap on the trailing edge of the keel, which contributes greatly to upwind efficiency by improving the keel's lift, broke during the race against Italy yesterday. The French boat had enjoyed a slim lead at the time, and had to watch Luna Rossa sail away to an easy win when the tab failed.
Luna Rossa continued her climb up through the fleet with her decisive win over the Japanese. The Italians came into the series with the best win - loss record in the first three rounds, but were beaten by Stars & Stripes in the heavy weather second race last Monday, and then had her mast snap the next day on the first leg of what was shaping up as a close encounter with America One.
Today the Italians left no doubt that they are sailing a very fast boat. Up against the aggressive pre-start tactics of world match racing champion Peter Gilmour, Luna Rossa was forced above the line and held there for more than two minutes. Then Asura peeled off around the committee boat and hit the line at close to top speed. The Italians were left to follow in her wake and were several seconds late off the mark. But at the helm of Luna Rossa, Francesco de Angelis methodically worked the big silver and red sloop to the right, where he found a bit more wind pressure and eased into the lead.
At the weather mark Luna Rossa held a 28-second edge, most of it gained by simply going faster. The Japanese pulled up three lengths on the first run, but from there on the Italian boat demonstrated far superior upwind speed to win by 1:33, having led by more than two minutes at the final weather mark.
America One now has four victories, her one loss coming when her headstay came apart in her race against America True. She had a free win when Luna Rossa broke her mast. Stars & Stripes has three points, but has sailed one fewer times and will sail the make-up race against America True at the end of the round. Luna Rossa has three wins, having lost a heavy air race to Stars & Stripes and having broken her mast in Race Three. Japan has won two and lost three; America True has won one and has a make-up race to sail. France had her only win today.