America One's eight-second victory over Luna Rossa today saw the two boats overlapped for most of the final leg. There were fouls called against both boats that cancelled each other out so that neither had to do a penalty turn and there was a bow to bow sprint for the finish that saw America One win by a few feet.
What must be painfully clear to the Californians is that Luna Rossa is faster going to windward in the 12 to 14 knot winds experienced through most of the race and the Americans will find her tough to beat if they meet in the best five out of nine finals.
In the other races today, Stars & Stripes stayed in the hunt for the finals when she beat France's Le Defi in another close contest, and Japan's Asura kept her hopes alive by downing America True, who no longer has a chance to make the final pair. Asura and Stars & Stripes now have four points each and are one point behind Luna Rossa with two races to go in the regular series, but with one makeup race left between Stars & Stripes and America True.
So there is plenty of drama ahead, with both Stars & Stripes and Asura still capable of making the cut. But today the focus was on the Italians and America One. The record shows that the boat that gets to the first weather mark in the lead wins the race 85 percent of the time. America One hit a big left hand wind shift early in the race, sailed into fresher wind and popped into a big lead. She rounded the first mark one minute and two seconds ahead. By all odds the race should have been over right there, but the Italians had forgotten to read the record book. They gained 19 seconds on the first downwind leg, and lost 15 on the second beat as America One sailed into slightly stronger wind near the top mark.
Then the silver and red Italian machine picked up 33 seconds on the next run to begin the third windward leg 25 seconds behind. It was the closest they had been since getting on the wrong side of the big wind shift after the start. Working hard to keep her wind clear, and accelerating better out of the tacks, the Italians slowly closed the gap. There were no major wind shifts, so that raw speed and pointing ability made the difference.
At the helm of America One Paul Cayard appeared to have control of the situation and gradually forced the Italians towards the port tack lay line. As the pair closed on the mark and Luna Rossa closed on the Californians, Cayard made the mistake of allowing his opponent to get a bit to the right. With Cayard now on the port tack layline and getting ready for the buoys-to-starboard mark rounding, the Italian boat blasted in from the right, calling for the starboard tack right of way, and forced America One to tack. Luna Rossa turned for the mark and rounded with a nine second lead.
Down the final leg, with both boats on starboard jibe, Luna Rossa held her slim lead, but Cayard was able to establish an overlap to leeward. There followed a prolonged shouting match as Cayard continually accused the Italians of sailing below their proper course in breach of the rules. When boats are overlapped, the windward boat must not sail below it's normal course to interfere with her competitor. Cayard was not only addressing his stentorian remarks to the Italians, but was also attempting to influence the on-water judges, who were keeping a very close eye on the action from their nimble power boats.
After Cayard had claimed a foul several times the judges finally agreed and assessed the Italians a penalty turn. It remains a controversial call, with Luna Rossa's tactician Torben Grael insisting that at no time did they sail illegally low of course. But faced with having to do a penalty turn, which would have put them out of contention, the Italians had only one option. If they could force a foul on the Americans, it would be one foul apiece and neither would have to do a penalty turn.
At this point, all Cayard had to do to be sure of victory was to keep well clear of the Italians as there was no way Luna Rossa could do her penalty turn and still win the race. But with adrenaline taking the place of good sense, he kept the pressure on and was fortunate to eke out the win.
Luna Rossa was able to break the California boat's overlap by a few feet, and helmsman Francesco de Angelis took a chance and did a quick jibe onto port tack across the bow of America One. Then the roles were reversed, with the Italians to leeward and bow to bow with the Californians. A wild jibing duel ensued and the Italian tactics were rewarded when America One's spinnaker brushed against the backstay of Luna Rossa. So it was one foul each and all that remained was a few hundred yards of ocean between the competitors and the finish line. But the skirmish cost Luna Rossa some speed and Cayard was able to ease into the lead to win by a few feet.
It was a costly loss for the Italian boat, as they now remain only one point ahead of Stars & Stripes and Asura. There are several possible scenarios, but the most likely one, and the one that hangs heavily over the Italian camp, is the possibility that Stars & Stripes will win all three of her remaining races, and Luna Rossa will win her two matches, so that they will end the series in a tie and have to go into a sudden death sail-off. In light to medium air the Italians should have the measure of Team Dennis Conner, but if it blows hard the San Diego boat could beat Luna Rossa, as it did in the second race of the series.
If the remaining races go according to form, the Italians should score twice, beating Le Defi and Asura, and Stars & Stripes would be expected to edge out America True in their two remaining matches. So the final tally could be in the hands of Paul Cayard and America One, as they are scheduled to sail against Stars & Stripes in the 10th race. If they lose the race, or choose not to sail, the victory for Stars & Stripes, combined with two wins over America True, would put her into a tie with the Italians. The final race between America True and Stars & Stripes is the re-match of a postponed race earlier in the series, and it could be a crucial one.