As Ben Ainslie and his crew turned the Red Sea air blue following a near-capsize in the final fleet race of this America’s Cup warm-up regatta, it was difficult to escape a familiar sense of dread where British America’s Cup challenges are concerned. It has been 172 years after all.
There were mitigating factors to this result. And Ainslie can certainly point to much improved boat-handling and speed compared with their last outing in Vilanova back in September, when they finished dead last. But ultimately it ended with Ineos Britannia fifth in a six-boat fleet, with only newcomers France behind them. It was not the result they wanted.
The good news is it was only a practice event. The British team still have nine months to sharpen their racing talons ready for the real thing, the 37th America’s Cup in Barcelona next autumn, when they will be sailing the much larger 75ft Cup boat they have been busy building behind-closed-doors with partners Mercedes F1. That may yet blow everyone out of the water.
But it is fair to say there are questions being asked of Britain’s Challenger of Record with less than a year to go; about their sailing, their management structure, perhaps most pertinently of all, their major backer.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s imminent acquisition of 25 per cent of Manchester United for £1.35 billion has added another dynamic to Britain’s America’s Cup challenge. Does ploughing that amount of money into his boyhood football club make it less likely that Ratcliffe will renew for another America’s Cup campaign? Will he be prepared to keep putting in north of £100 million per campaign unless he sees a big step forward? Do they need to make the Cup match this time, for instance? If he steps back, who steps in?
Ainslie, as you might expect, does not sound overly concerned. All of his talks with Ratcliffe, he insists, have been positive in nature. “It’s an obvious question to ask,” he concedes. “But from the conversations we’ve had we’re already talking well beyond the next America’s Cup. I don’t think United as an investment really changes that.
“Obviously it’s not a great economic climate right now. Where it will be in 12 months’ time is anyone’s guess. Hopefully in a better place. But I think that, frankly, would probably be more of a deciding factor than the United investment.”
Ainslie would stand to lose more than most of Ineos’s sporting properties should Ratcliffe decide to pull the plug. The America’s Cup project is almost the perfect embodiment of the ‘cross-pollination’ that Ineos likes to talk about to illustrate how its various properties can help each other. From the 50-plus Mercedes F1 engineers beavering away in Brackley on RB3, Ineos’ Cup boat, to the work being done with Ineos Grenadiers – formerly Team Sky – to help prepare Ineos Britannia’s ‘cyclors’ (the four sailors on the Cup boat who will be generating hydraulic power via static bikes).
Again, Ainslie insists it is business as usual. He still reports to Ratcliffe bi-monthly in Monaco or London. He still attends bi-annual ‘CEO days’, where the heads of Ineos’s various companies get together to brainstorm. He still checks in bi-weekly with James Allison, the Mercedes F1 engineer who was chief technical officer of both the F1 team and the America’s Cup team, only for his involvement in the sailing project to be plunged into doubt earlier this year when Mercedes F1’s poor start to the season campaign saw Toto Wolff bring him back into the F1 fold as technical director.
“I’d be lying if I said [Allison’s move] hadn’t had an impact,” Ainslie admits. “But it’s probably not as much as people think or fear. I mean, James…you’d put him in a sort of Dave Brailsford bracket. He’s one of these people who, because of his expertise and his vast experience, he’s overseeing a lot… so he’s not necessarily that hands-on all the time. He was always more ‘What are the resources at Mercedes? What do we need in the Cup team? How do we get the right people in the right positions?’ And he’s brilliant at it. We still meet bi-weekly to talk about strategy and the campaign in general. He’s really emotionally invested in the Cup.”
Ainslie: I’m confident we’ll get ourselves where we need to be
It is not merely a question of design and technology. Questions have also been asked of the Ineos sailing team. There is no getting around the fact that other teams were smoother in Jeddah, notably the Kiwis and the Italians. Luna Rossa’s performance was particularly noteworthy as they had a 19-year-old, Marco Gradoni, as one of their co-helms.
Gradoni is like a mini-Ainslie: a three-time Optimist dinghy world champion. Only instead of going through the Olympic classes he jumped straight from a simulator into the America’s Cup. “It’s seriously impressive,” says Ainslie.
It begs the question, is this now a young man’s game? Have the likes of Ainslie and Jimmy Spithill still got what it takes to handle these flying machines?
There are other questions, too, around Ainslie. Ineos Britannia’s management structure is pretty much unique in the fact that the quadruple Olympic champion occupies pretty much every senior position. He is the team principal, the face of the project, the helmsman and skipper, the chief executive, not to mention a husband and father of two small children.
Ainslie admits taking on so many different roles “can be a challenge” but denies that he is wearing too many hats. He has become better at delegating, he says. Giles Scott has been promoted to head of sailing. Grant Simmer, former CEO, is still involved as a consultant. And so on.
On the sailing front, Ainslie accepts he has not had his best year, giving himself a “B-”. “But in terms of peaking for the Cup I can see a decent pathway to get myself where I need to be,” he says.
To that end, the team have just acquired a second AC40 so they will be able to do two-boat testing in Barcelona as of January. And with the major design elements of RB3, their race boat, now signed off, he can focus more on the sailing side.
“We’re in a much better place than this time four years ago,” he concludes. “Obviously we don’t know what our rivals will come up with, but our expectations are that we will be in the ballpark. Right now there isn’t one area that I’m panicking that we’re really deficient in. We can certainly sail better. I know that. But I’m confident we’ll have the time next year to get ourselves where we need to be.”