Emirates Team New Zealand on Tuesday beat defending champions Oracle Team USA so soundly in Race 5 of the America’s Cup that Larry Ellison’s American syndicate had to postpone Race 6.
The New Zealanders took advantage of a tactical mistake by Oracle Team USA to win by a healthy margin on San Francisco Bay, finishing 1 minute 5 seconds ahead of the American boat.
Ellison, the software billionaire who runs Oracle Corporation, has made crew changes before, and some could be coming after a major blunder by his squad let Team New Zealand speed off to a resounding victory.
Then, not long before the scheduled start of Race 6, Oracle Team USA contacted the race committee by radio to say it was playing its one postponement card of the regatta, meaning the race was postponed until Thursday.
The Kiwis completely crushed the momentum Oracle gained with its heart-stopping win in Race 4 on Sunday.
Team New Zealand leads 4 to minus-1 and needs five more race wins to claim the America’s Cup – the oldest trophy in international sports – for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
In the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup Oracle was docked two points by an international jury and wing-sail trimmer Dirk de Ridder was expelled from the regatta. The US team needs 10 wins to keep the Auld Mug.
Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said his team needs to regroup and make some changes. Whether they’re to the 72-foot catamaran, the crew or tactics – or all three – remains to be seen. The US team has made numerous errors during this regatta and Team New Zealand continues to make strong gains sailing upwind.
Either way, it was a stunning move for the well-funded, deep sailing team that won the America’s Cup in 2010.
After Oracle announced it was playing its card, Spithill hopped onto a chase boat and conferred with syndicate CEO Russell Coutts, who won the first two of his four America’s Cups as skipper of Team New Zealand in 1995 and 2000.
Spithill declined to reveal the contents of that conversation.
“Oh, we were just talking about rugby, weather,” Spithill cracked. “No, I can’t, actually. I’d love to tell you, I really would. But no.”
Asked how safe he feels, the Australian said: “You can be a rooster one day and a feather duster the next, mate.”
It’s unlikely Spithill would get the boot. Early speculation was that tactician John Kostecki, a San Francisco native, could face dismissal.
Spithill was asked if Kostecki would be on the boat on Thursday, when Races 6 and 7 are scheduled, and answered, “I can’t guarantee anything. I probably can’t guarantee I’ll be on there. It’s too early to make a decision right now. It’s really part of the reason why we played the card. We need time to assess our programme and the boat. We need to get it heading in the other direction. We’ve got time, fortunately. There are a lot of races left.”
Kostecki usually attends post-race news conferences with Spithill. On Tuesday, rising star Tom Slingsby, a gold medalist for Australia at the London Olympics and a strategist and grinder for Oracle, accompanied the skipper instead.
Spithill said he was just rotating things and it was too early to say whether Kostecki would be replaced.
Coutts said in a text to reporters he didn’t think replacing Kostecki was an option.
“But we might look at other options,” he revealed.
Kiwi skipper Dean Barker seemed stunned when Team New Zealand were told Oracle was playing its card.
“Oracle just pulled the pin, boys,” he told his crew. “Is that 100 per cent?”
It was an intriguing development, considering Oracle Team USA practiced its upwind sailing and tacking on Monday, an off day, while the Kiwis chose to stay ashore.
Wednesday is also an off day. Oracle plans to go out and practice. The Kiwis plan to stay ashore, work on the boat and use their simulators to try to improve their starts, the one area they’re weak.
Spithill said Oracle’s boat is fine, which makes playing the postponement card now that much riskier, in case of a breakdown occurs later in the regatta.
“We’re not going to go back and massage each other’s egos, I can guarantee you that,” Spithill said. “But you’ve got to be smart about it. If all things were great, we wouldn’t have played it. But we have to be honest with ourselves. We’re very, very candid with each other and we’re very direct. It was obvious that, unless we made some changes, there’s a real chance we weren’t going to win the second race of the day.”
Oracle Team USA led on the first two legs on Tuesday and then called for a foiling tack, a radical, quick turn around the downwind mark. The crew botched the tack and practically came to a stop, costing it almost all of its 150-metre lead.
“Yeah, I think it was a mistake in the end,” Slingsby said. “We wanted to cover the right-hand side but ideally we probably should have kept going straight and tacked when they tacked.”
Oracle has made a number of errors. This was just the latest, and perhaps the biggest.
“In this racing, you only need to make a couple little mistakes here and there and they add up very quickly,” Spithill said. “As we’ve seen in these boats, what’s good or bad, depending on if you’re in the lead or behind, you make a mistake, you get absolutely punished for it.”
Barker steered Team New Zealand into the cone of Alcatraz, which offers protection from the flood tide as the boats sail upwind toward the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time the 72-foot catamarans had passed Alcatraz, the Kiwis were in the lead. Their advantage was more than 300 metres halfway up the leg.
“Obviously we’re very pleased to take the win,” Barker said. “It’s difficult because these guys are getting off the line well and leading around mark one, so they get to dictate a little bit what’s going on down the run. But the boat is going really well upwind. The guys are doing a really, really good job with the manoeuvring, tacking and everything. We’re taking some pretty nice little gains there.”