Special Report: America’s Cup preview

Some of the key protagonists set to challenge for the 35th America's Cup preview what's to come ahead of the start of the first Louis Vuitton America's Cup World Series event in Portsmouth this weekend.

Special Report: America’s Cup preview

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Quest for the Cup

Eminent in the world of motorsports after a quarter of a century at Britain’s McLaren Racing, Martin Whitmarsh has swapped motor cars for multihulls as he seeks to spearhead a historic British triumph for Land Rover BAR in the America’s Cup in 2017.

By Mike Kennedy

“It’s very clear that the America’s Cup attracts the best sailors in the world,” says Martin Whitmarsh, the chief executive of Land Rover Team BAR, of the contest for the oldest international sporting trophy. “It’s the most competitive branch of sailing. It’s the pinnacle of sport.”

Despite a self-proclaimed fascination with the America’s Cup, it was in motorsport, not sailing, that Whitmarsh earned his stripes as an astute leader at McLaren. Having parted ways with the Formula One team in August 2014 following a quarter of a century of service, during which time he rose to chief executive of the group, Whitmarsh accepted the offer from four-time Olympic gold medal-winning sailor Sir Ben Ainslie to join his team, Ben Ainslie Racing – now Land Rover BAR – as chief executive in March. Ainslie helped Oracle Team USA, the American boat funded by billionaire Larry Ellison, to a historic comeback victory in the America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013, and he subsequently formed the British team to compete in the 35th edition of international yacht racing series, set for Bermuda in 2017.

In Formula One, Whitmarsh relished the adrenaline-fuelled racing from the command position on the sidelines, and departing the sport was not without its difficulties. “I spent over 25 years stood on the pit wall in Formula One and I think that challenge, the adrenaline of that is quite difficult to come away from,” he admits. “I chose to walk away from it and I think it was the right decision at the time. But you still miss racing, that environment and the challenge and the camaraderie and everything that happens around that.”

With that in mind, Whitmarsh confesses that he didn’t need much convincing before accepting Ainslie’s offer. The opportunity to lead this elite British sailing team appealed to those same impulses. “To me it stemmed back to watching the America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013, which I thought was a game-changing moment in sport really,” he says. “I just sensed that this might be a new era in this sport, a great challenge to go out there and after 164 years, try and bring this cup at last back to the UK.”

Whitmarsh is tasked with building and marshalling an outfit capable of becoming the first British entry to lift the ‘Auld Mug’, as the America’s Cup prize is popularly known, since the yachting challenge was founded in 1851 by claiming victory over the defending US boat on the blue waters of Bermuda. In Ainslie, the most successful sailor in Olympic history, the team has a formidable skipper.

“I’d met Ben (Ainslie) a few times and I have to say I’ve always found him to be, obviously, incredibly competitive, but also incredibly humble and intelligent. I very much had respect for him,” says Whitmarsh of his team principal. “I think with Ben we’ve got a pretty good start to pull together the best sailing team in the world, frankly. He’s been a great draw."

Whitmarsh (right) believes that British sailing legend Sir Ben Ainslie is the best man to bring the America's Cup to Britain for the first time in its history.

For Whitmarsh, the initial challenges have come in ensuring he understands what the competitors are doing and where the rules are evolving,  while setting a workable budget, securing commercial partners and building a technical team capable of delivering a competitive boat for Ainslie and his crew. “It’s really identifying the principal performance differentiators,” he explains, “making sure that we get maximum bang for our buck in our investment, that we make a difference, building that up and building that team which hasn’t frankly been built before in this country. This is the first properly funded programme like it.”

A number of partners have already been secured, including Land Rover BAR’s sustainability partner, 11th Hour Racing, a programme which seeks to provide a model of sailing sponsorship that supports sustainable practices to protect the oceans. In the commercial suppliers category the team have support from UK companies like sailing wear brand Henri Lloyd and construction machinery manufacturer JCB.  The announcement of Land Rover as the team’s title sponsor and innovation partner in June 2015 was a major positive, with the carmaker identified by Whitmarsh as the ideal brand to support the team – its iconic British status and similar core values providing “credibility” to the programme.

"We know Ben’s fearsome reputation for competition. I’m sure Ben and the team will be disappointed if we don’t get out and win."

“It’s a fantastic business and a fantastic engineering business in terms of the technology and innovation they can bring to the team,” Whitmarsh says. “They are there absolutely genuine with their intent of making a difference technically to our programme.” For Mark Cameron, the global brand experience director for Jaguar Land Rover, beyond the obvious branding and visibility opportunities, the possibility to have a hands-on involvement in a project “absolutely set up to succeed” is a principal driving force behind the partnership.

With Land Rover now on board, there is a strong desire to add further “iconic” British partners who can make a difference to the team’s performance, as Whitmarsh looks to accrue the remaining portion of the UK£80 million budget he has set. “We’ve got reasonable confidence that we will create the UK£80 million, and our sense is that that gives us a budget that will enable us to be highly competitive in our bid,” he reveals. “There will be teams with a lot less of a budget than we have, but the boat is one which should cause us to reasonably believe that we can go and have a successful campaign and win this cup.”

With the backing of Ellison, Oracle Team USA have won the last two Cups, and dwarfed their rivals when it comes to outlay on sailors and resources in recent editions. The American is estimated to have spent US$300 million securing the title in San Francisco two years ago. Whitmarsh senses that, after successfully defending the Cup in 2013, Ellison wants to manage his legacy to “leave the sport in a great place”. Following the majority vote by the teams to downsize the boats from the AC72s used in 2013 to AC45s, the costs required to compete have been significantly reduced as these are less expensive to build, and can be taken apart to ship around the world.

“It’s making them affordable, carrying them over as we anticipate and expect to carry this class over to the next Cup as well,” Whitmarsh says. “This gives a lot more certainty and lowers the barrier of entry and frankly, even in this cycle, you can participate for a lot less than the budget that we’ve set ourselves – and I think in subsequent cycles the budgets will be much, much smaller which will only draw more and more teams into it. So I think we’ll have a tremendous build for the next cycle of the America’s Cup.”

The introduction of AC45 foiling catamarans has significantly reduced the costs of entry to the America's Cup, and increased the speed of the boats.

Whitmarsh draws a distinction between the Oracle Team USA type of business model, where funding comes from one wealthy individual, with Land Rover BAR’s model, which is supported by a range of private investors together with commercial partners. One such investor is TeamOrigin, a syndicate first set up in 2007 as Great Britain’s bid to compete in the 2010 and 2013 editions of the America’s Cup, though it subsequently put this on hold in 2010 due to legal and financial concerns. TeamOrigin is led by British entrepreneur Sir Keith Mills, deputy chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) in 2012, who is also a founder, director and shareholder in Land Rover BAR. TeamOrigin is managing the first Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series (ACWS) event in Portsmouth, which is expected to attract as many as 500,000 spectators between 23rd and 26th July.

The ACWS events are taking place ahead of the America’s Cup Challenger Series in Bermuda in 2017, providing teams with the opportunity to earn vital points to carry into the qualifying event, while giving spectators the opportunity to witness top class sailing up close. “[TeamOrigin] are undoubtedly putting on a fantastic event which is our home event, it’s on our doorstep,” offers Whitmarsh.

“So I think we, and frankly the sport, are well blessed in that regard,” he continues. “Given that it’s the first World Series event, it will really establish a fantastic benchmark. I think it will remind people what happened in San Francisco; I think now we’ve got to build from that. We know Ben’s fearsome reputation for competition. I’m sure Ben and the team will be disappointed if we don’t get out and win them.”

Through the support of the Land Rover BAR Technical Innovation Group (TIG), British industry leaders are combining to contribute expertise in advanced technologies through research and development to complement the existing design team. The team has further tie-ins with Formula One through serial title-winning engineer Adrian Newey and Red Bull Advanced Technologies, and Whitmarsh is keen to draw from the proficiencies of the sport he knows so well.

“In terms of performance analysis simulation, that technology, those techniques have really been developed in Formula One and we’re wishing to slingshot our programme in that regard – developing our sailor simulation and simulator programmes,” explains Whitmarsh. “So partnering with a good, strong Formula One team that has that technology is really a good way to accelerate and fast-track that process.

“Adrian himself is a great inspiration for his peers. I’ve worked with Adrian for a decade in my past life, both our past lives for that matter, and we know each other very well and he is incredibly innovative and, as I say, an inspirational figure for our engineering team. So getting him involved in some of those innovation discussions is really going to help deliver some great approaches for the team.”

Four-time gold medalist Ainslie is the most decorated sailor in Olympic history, winning medals at five consecutive Games between 1996 and 2012.

Concurrent to Land Rover BAR’s sporting quest is an ambition to contribute to the ongoing regeneration within the Portsmouth-Solent area; what Whitmarsh labels “a real performance maritime technology feeling and environment” to benefit the local economy. The team are also committed commitment to establishing apprenticeships and training in the region. A new state of the art headquarters to serve the team, which became fully operational in June, was built with the assistance of a UK£6.5 million government grant, and will house the 1851 Trust visitor centre, which aims to inspire and engage a new generation through sailing and the marine industry, showcasing the sport, innovation, technology and sustainability.

Portsmouth, says Whitmarsh, “was a city that relied on huge dockyards which frankly have been in decline for the last 50 years and I think the creation of this iconic facility in an area of Old Portsmouth is creating that spark, that stimulus for that regeneration programme. So that’s exciting for the image and a sense of progress in that area. I think that people recognise that clearly we’re bringing jobs, money into the area.”

The immediate goal for Whitmarsh and Land Rover BAR, though, is to deliver a statement in the ACWS events and ensure Land Rover BAR is on the start-line as the Challenger to Oracle Team USA in 2017.

Whitmarsh concludes, “we’ve got to go out there and show people, and remind people just how exciting San Francisco was, what the potential this sport has, how it’s now changing, how it’s a more affordable sport than it’s ever been and why the racing is going to be closer, more dynamic, close to the shore, a great spectacle there, but also a great spectacle on TV.”

Bound for Bermuda

As sailing's most presitigous event heads for Bermuda in 2017, America's Cup commercial commissioner Harvey Schiller explains why the 35th Cup is set to be the biggest, fastest and most vivid spectacle yet.

By Mike Kennedy

In 2017, the 35th America’s Cup heads to Bermuda. The international yacht racing series, which dates back to 1851, ultimately remains a simple contest between Defender and Challenger, though in its modern form majestic wooden yachts have been replaced with lean carbon-fibre catamarans. Legal disputes, such as the probes into alleged contract rigging for the America’s Cup events that took place in Naples in 2012 and 2013, have marred recent series. Oracle Team USA won the last America’s Cup in 2013 – overturning a near-insurmountable lead to defeat Emirates Team New Zealand in San Francisco – but did so despite beginning the contest with a two-point deduction after members of the team were found to have contravened rules by adding weight to the boat in the warm-up event.

For Harvey Schiller – the commercial commissioner for the America’s Cup Events Authority (ACEA), the company responsible for organising the 35th Cup – things are progressing well for 2017. Bermuda has ticked all the boxes in terms of venue requirements, from sponsorship opportunities in the area to the documentation and bureaucratic procedures. It is in an appropriate time zone for the international broadcast audience, and offers suitable travel opportunities for fans. “There are always a number of regulations that have to do with an international event. They have everything to do with the immigration, taxation, customs, etc,” says Schiller. “And all of those have been accommodated in the best way possible with Bermuda, so we’re very pleased.”

Before the main event in 2017, a number of Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series (AMWS) events are set to be staged around the world, beginning in Portsmouth, UK in July 2015. The ACWS provides an opportunity for teams to get to grips with the AC45 foiling wing-sailed catamarans and also to score points for the America’s Cup Challenger Series in 2017, while showcasing the sport to attract interest and global awareness – which Schiller points out is a key element to encourage and activate the Cup’s sponsors, such as Louis Vuitton, Bremont and BMW, upon whose support the Cup largely depends.

​Joining the British boat for the series is the defeated challenger last time, Emirates Team New Zealand, together with Groupama Team France, Swedish entry Team Artemis, and Softbank Team Japan, the first Japanese entry in 15 years. The overall ranking position in the ACWS will determine the teams’ starting points in the Challenger Series, which takes place in Bermuda in 2017 to determine which of these teams will challenge Oracle Team USA for the America’s Cup.

Schiller says this America’s Cup is set to be the biggest, fastest and most vivid spectacle yet. More TV revenue has already been raised, two years before the main event, than the 2013 edition managed altogether, through deals with the likes of BT Sport, which has acquired live coverage rights for subscribers in the UK and Ireland for all live stages of the 2015-16 America’s Cup World Series events as well as the 2017 finals. This agreement sits alongside that of the BBC, with the publicly funded broadcaster having acquired free-to-air highlights rights for the Americas Cup in the UK, including the 2017 races and the Portsmouth World Series event.

Bermuda has ticked all the boxes for the ACEA, and is preparing to host the America's Cup in 2017.

Deals have been struck with NBC in the US, Canal Plus in France and CCTV in China, while Schiller hopes to announce more partners in Latin America, Asia and other parts of the world very soon, reaching as many as 200 countries through the various broadcast options offered, from full coverage to highlights packages. “All in all we’re very, very pleased,” remarks Schiller. “We’re certainly well ahead of where we were for the America’s Cup 34.”

In a marked change from 2013, the boats have been downgraded from the 72-foot AC72 catamarans to smaller 45-foot AC45s, which have been enhanced so that they are fully foiling boats, meaning they can rise up off their hulls at speed with just the rudder keeping contact with the water. Trimming their size has added speed and these will be the fastest boats ever raced in the America’s Cup, capable of reaching up to 40mph. Schiller says they will deliver a great spectacle for onlookers, who will be able to see them racing closer in to the shore than in the past.

“They are extremely competitive,” he says. “If you see the videos it’s very hard to differentiate those from the bigger AC72s. The biggest difference with this event and previous events is that it’s important for us to have as many participants as possible and that means economically the event has to be successful in terms of its partners, its broadcast partners, but really the revenue that’s associated with it, even from the venues. The costs come down dramatically with these enhanced AC45s compared to the larger boats: crew costs, building costs and the logistics, everything else about it. The point about this is that we will be able to use these same boats in the next America’s Cup.”

The ability to reuse the same boats for subsequent editions of the America’s Cup played a huge factor in the teams’ majority vote to reduce the boat size ahead of the 2017 event. “No sponsor wants to put a lot of money into an event and then have to reinvent it again or have to lose their place,” Schiller points out.

“For the people behind these things and the companies behind them, there’s no reason to waste any money,” he says.  “The important thing is to have a great competitive sailing and sports event. And the next goal for us is to work together for the teams to move forward to do the World Series for the next years after 2017 – for 2018, ‘19, and ‘20 and even into 2021 – to continue the series and return this to what really is a tier-one sporting event. So our ultimate goals are to have the full co-operation of the teams because of the boat size, the economics and everything else, the participation of their sponsors.”

SoftBank Team Japan: on board and on the water

This weekend's Louis Vuitton America's Cup World Series event in Portsmouth marks the first competitive action for SoftBank Team Japan, Japan’s first challenge for the 'Auld Mug' since 2000. Ahead of the event, team skipper and chief executive Dean Barker explains how preparations have been going on and off the water.

By Michael Long

It wasn’t until late April that SoftBank Team Japan confirmed their challenge for the 35th America’s Cup. Just weeks out from the first Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series (ACWS) event – scheduled for Portsmouth, on the UK’s south coast, in July – the long-rumoured announcement finally came that Japan’s first Cup entry since 2000 would be funded primarily by SoftBank Corp, the Japanese multinational telecoms and internet company, and represent Osaka’s Kansai Yacht Club.

The team are being led by general manager Kazuhiko Sofuku, a veteran of four previous Cup campaigns, and New Zealander Dean Barker, winner of the Cup with Team New Zealand 15 years ago. Barker has been installed as skipper and chief executive of the Japanese entry following his split with Team New Zealand, and it is now down to him to oversee the team’s hastily arranged debut.

“It’s fantastic to be responsible for putting a team together but also to continue to sail and race, which is really what I wanted to be able to do,” says Barker (left), speaking a little over a week before SoftBank Team Japan are due to take to the water for the first time. “It’s a big challenge and you definitely respect the people that have run these teams in the past because it is a challenging prospect, but it is certainly one that you want to grab with both hands and run with.”

Barker’s first task has been to put together a collective capable of challenging for sailing’s most prestigious prize. As well as calling on the expertise of Sofuku, who last competed in the Cup for Nippon Challenge in 1999/2000 and is currently the only Japanese member of the team, he has so far brought in decorated helmsman Chris Draper as sailing director, boat builder Adrian Gray and shore team chief Tyson Lamond, as well as former Team New Zealand crew members Jeremy Lomas and Derek Saward.

To help get operational in such a short space of time, SoftBank Team Japan are also receiving a ‘base level of technical assistance’, including staff, from defender Oracle Team USA. “We literally have five sailors here, two shore crew, and then the rest really are being made up with support from Oracle,” explains Barker, who reveals that the long-term aim is to “slowly build up to a point in January where we want to be fully operating out of our base in Bermuda”, where the 35th Cup will be staged.

“We’ve got a couple of people coming in just to provide assistance from the event side and things,” he adds. “Right now, it really is only seven people that are part of SoftBank Team Japan, so it’s a lot of work still to build it up to a fully functioning, standalone team.”

Until now, Barker’s personal role in the team has been a multifarious one, spanning “everything from learning the process of how to relocate families into Bermuda and rent houses and form companies there, through to the logistics around getting the team up and running, going through the process of employing different people and figuring out how the structure comes together and how it all fits within the budget”.

SoftBank Team Japan confirmed their challenge for the 35th America’s Cup in late April, leaving themselves little time to prepare.

Part of Barker’s role has also been to help source corporate support for the project. Though SoftBank is title sponsoring the team and funding virtually the entire operation – Barker reveals he has “a basic budget which is enough to get us through and do everything at a very good level, but it is certainly tight as well” – a concerted effort is currently ongoing behind the scenes to get more companies involved.

“We’ve got some fantastic support from ACEA [America’s Cup Event Authority]; the guys there are helping put together sponsorship proposals and helping facilitate that,” adds Barker. “We’ve got a couple of people also helping in the background making approaches and things. I had a week in Japan about three weeks ago and that was great. We spent three or four days with the SoftBank team that are responsible for the involvement in Team Japan. It was really good to meet them and start that process because sailing is something very new for them.”

SoftBank’s involvement in the Team Japan project would not be possible without the blessing of Masayoshi Son, the founder and chief executive of the company who is thought to be Japan’s richest man with an estimated personal fortune of US$14.5 billion. “We were very fortunate to spend quarter of an hour or so with him when we were in Japan,” continues Barker. “He was very knowledgeable on the America’s Cup already; I think he’d had a few discussions with Larry [Ellison, team principle of Oracle Team USA].

“We’re hopeful that he will be able to be here in Portsmouth for some or hopefully all of the event. Ideally, we’d take him racing but we’ll see how that develops. But he definitely seems engaged with it, which is great, and hopefully he’ll get to love the sport, which would be fantastic.”

Masayoshi Son, the founder and chief executive of SoftBank, is estimated to be worth US$14.5 billion.

Though SoftBank has little to no experience in sailing, Barker says the switch to smaller, 45-foot AC45 catamarans was a key factor in the company’s decision to enter this time around. “It absolutely allows teams to come in at a later stage and at a smaller cost and to be able to get competitive pretty quickly,” he says. “We’re obviously buying a design package from Oracle and that allows to get going very quickly without having to recruit ten, 15 designers to effectively design all the different aspects of the boat and to get to that level. It would be near-impossible to start today and put that whole structure together.

“It allows us to do that; it means our team can be smaller: we’ll probably only have 35, 40 people, tops, in our team, so teams are a lot smaller than teams of the past. It’s a lot easier to relocate, to manage and everything else. So there’s a lot of good rationale allowing different teams to come in.”

While nobody is genuinely expecting SoftBank Team Japan to be competitive right from the outset, Barker is confident of putting together a credible challenger for the ‘Auld Mug’ in two years’ time. “If we do everything well, there is no reason why we can’t be successful in 2017,” he says. “The America’s Cup is quite often determined by the mistakes a team makes in the early stages of coming together and the different decisions that are made early on that have an impact on the final result. It goes without saying you need to have a good boat, it needs to be a fast boat in 2017, and you need a good sailing team to race it and you need good shore support. I think, if we can put those factors together, we’ll certainly give ourselves a good opportunity to be successful.

“In terms of the World Series, we’re putting together a new team here which is going to take time to gel, particularly when you’re sailing against some of these guys who have been doing a lot of sailing together already. We know it’s going to be competitive right off the bat but certainly with the guys we’ve got, we’ve given ourselves a good opportunity quickly and we’ve got to make the most of the next ten days to try and get ourselves on the pace and be competitive.

“I know, from my own point of view, I’m probably the weak link right now having not really raced foiling [catamarans] since 2013. I know that I’ve got a big job to get back to the level that I expect to be at, but it’s certainly going to be great to get racing again.”