Dragon's son has mountain to climb

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am

For a nation that has long hidden behind barriers, China's transparency at the America's Cup is remarkable.

It's building is constructed of a clear plastic sheeting, allowing the public to peer inside. Its base is open to the public, and the team did not cover their keel and rudder with a 'skirt' to hide it from competing designers ahead of the regatta.

China Team have very little to hide in terms of boat technology or team strategy because they have not had the money to develop them.

'The point is not to win the America's Cup, but to show off China and give it some exposure here, and that was central to the concept of the base and our hospitality,' said Xavier de Lesquen, executive director of the team who came with Le Delfi, the French team China have taken over to build the foundation of their campaign.

Barring a miracle, China Team have no chance of winning a race in the 7th Louis Vuitton Cup. But they are not in Valencia just to make up the numbers, instead making optimistic plans to build a team who will create a new generation of Chinese sailors for future cup challenges.

Underfunded and underprepared, China Team will most likely end up at the bottom of the fleet. The winners of the LV Cup will challenge defending America's Cup holders Alinghi in the final from June 23-July 4.

'On paper we have zero chance of winning,' says Pierre Mas, the team's skipper. 'But not every boat can be sailing at 100 per cent top speed in every race, not every crew is 100 per cent in every race. So if we can be at our top when they make some mistakes, there's a chance we can get a win.'

Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli won the 2003 America's Cup in New Zealand and, since his country has no coastline, he chose Valencia as the site to accept the challenge for the sport's oldest trophy. Team Alinghi do not sail in the Louis Vuitton Cup, but by tradition they, and a management company they have created, run the entire competition.

China Team, the country's first challenge for the 156-year old cup, join South Africa and Germany as newcomers. But they are the most poorly funded, with less than 10 per cent of the budget of top teams such as BMW Oracle.

The LV Cup lasts until the second week of June, by which time the 11 teams will have contested 130 races to decide who will challenge the Alinghi crew. Prior to the cup, the teams raced in 13 'acts' around Europe, giving them time to fine-tune their skills. China Team have yet to win a race in 2006 or 2007.

China's small budget, with HK$100 million in cash and about HK$62 million in gear and infrastructure from Le Delfi, made it hard to hire and keep top sailors on the team, and several have left for competing campaigns. Only about 55 people are in the team, half the size of the larger teams.

'We couldn't keep our crew in between acts, because we couldn't pay them,' Mas said. 'We have to keep the best from every campaign. If you start each year slightly behind where you ended the last time you will never really move forward.'

Their boat, named Longtze (son of the dragon), was also built on a tight budget, using the deck and keel of Le Delfi's old boat to create a new entry. The carbon fibre hull was built in China, in accordance with regatta rules requiring it comes from the team's home country.

'We're using an old keel, which is not optimal. We've worked a lot to improve things, but still, if we designed a new bulb and fin, it would be different. This means we have less stability,' Mas said.

The team selected five Chinese sailors, three of whom will be part of the racing crew, from China's 27 best dinghy sailors. If the team follow their projected track they will have more Chinese sailors in future campaigns, but for now the boat and the team are steered by the French.

'It's a partnership. China didn't know about big-boat sailing. France can help China understand big boats. I do feel like I'm sailing for China, and this experience will be helpful for the next team,' says Chinese grinder Zhang Wenpei.

China Team have talent, and their boat may be only seconds behind the fastest in the fleet on a technical basis.

'We just haven't had enough time on the boat. We're hitting our top speed maybe 80 per cent of the time, and the top boats hit it 95 per cent at least. We're still learning how to trim this boat. These guys have sailed a lot, but not together,' said Tan Wearn Han, the team's Singaporean navigator.

De Lesquen says the team need at least HK$500 million to reach the middle of the fleet in the next cup, which means lining up Chinese as well as international sponsors. They now have one Chinese company backing them along with a handful of European brands.

China are not viewed as a competitive threat, yet their name is often mentioned as an important development for the spirit of the cup, and for their sponsors.

'It's exciting to see new countries in the competition. I hope to go visit China and get the chance to do some races there some day,' said Peter Isler, one of BMW Oracle's racing strategists. 'In the past I've also been on teams with last-minute entries and shoestring budgets, so I understand what is happening in the China base.'

China Team likes to compare the spirit in which they compete to that of Emirates Team New Zealand, who are sailing for the pride of their nation. And even the richest of competitors admit that pride and desire can overcome dollars.

'This is not just about money. Look at New Zealand. Teams with the most money have lost, and teams with less money have won,' said Larry Ellison, the leader and source of funding for BMW Oracle.

But will China come back? Wang Chaoyang, the syndicate head, says they will return, and the entire team talk more of future campaigns than the current one. And with the 2007 campaign being written off as a learning process, it would be a waste not to return. But other countries, such as Japan, have challenged for the cup in fits and starts.

'It's very special to have them here, and not just from a marketing standpoint,' said Bruno Trouble, a multiple French America's Cup Challenge skipper and the man who created the Louis Vuitton Cup.

'I'm just afraid that if they don't win any races they won't come back. The Chinese will say forget it.'

Blowing in the wind

China has a team in the Louis Vuitton Cup for the first time

Likelihood of China Team winning a race in the challenger series, according to skipper Pierre Mas: 0%