By Alexander Smith
(Reuters) - As Britain and Italy go head-to-head for the right to challenge New Zealand for the America's Cup, the teams' billionaire backers will have their colours emblazoned across the hulls and sails of their futuristic "foiling" yachts.
Behind the bold graphics are hundreds of millions which have been sunk into the America's Cup campaigns of Jim Ratcliffe, founder and chairman of chemicals company INEOS, and Patrizio Bertelli, chief executive of luxury goods group Prada.
Since it began in 1851 the America's Cup has been dominated by competition between some of the world's richest individuals vying for the prestige which comes with winning the "Auld Mug".
"The America's Cup is special, especially for sailors. It has always been at the forefront of the sport. It's a unique challenge and that's what makes it special," Bertelli, who is also chairman of Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team, said in a video broadcast by the America's Cup organisers last month.
Bertelli has been trying in vain to win the oldest trophy in international sport for more than two decades, spending millions in the process and playing a significant role in its evolution.
And in order to get a shot at defender Emirates Team New Zealand in the 36th edition next month, Luna Rossa will have to beat Ben Ainslie's British crew in the first-to-seven wins Prada Cup final, which starts on Saturday in Auckland.
NO 'WEAK SPOT'
Ainslie's dream of bringing the Cup "home" to Britain where it was first contested in the Solent, between the south coast of England and the Isle of Wight, struck a chord in 2018 with INEOS boss Ratcliffe, who is also a keen sailor.
Ratcliffe's enthusiasm was evident when he boarded the AC75 "Britannia" last month for a champagne celebration with Ainslie and his team after they beat Luna Rossa in the Prada Cup round robin races and secured a direct path to the final.
With more than 110 million pounds ($152 million) invested in INEOS Team UK and one of the most competitive sailors in the world at the helm, Ratcliffe may have given Britain its best chance in a generation of finally winning the elusive Cup.
But to do so his team must conquer Bertelli's Luna Rossa.
"They have been in this game for over 20 years, have been performing well across a range of conditions and do not seem to have a weak spot ... we will need to sail incredibly well to beat them," Ainslie said on the INEOS Team UK website.
($1 = 0.7242 pounds)
(Reporting by Alexander Smith in LONDON; Editing by Christian Radnedge)