America’s Cup 2021: Prada Cup explainer – How it works, what to expect and the team to beat

Michael Burgess runs the rule on the Prada Cup, how it works and why there won’t be the same cut-throat feeling as past events.

Why is it the Prada Cup?

The Italian fashion empire took over the naming rights of the challenger selection series after Louis Vuitton decided to discontinue their long-running involvement in 2017.

The move was in line with Prada supremo Patrizio Bertelli’s desire to play more of a role in this year’s event, with the Italian team also the challenger of record for the 36th edition of the America’s Cup.

The Format

There are three stages. During the round robin the three challengers race each other four times. There are two races on each day, with the preliminary stage spread across two weekends and six days.

On January 24 the top-ranked qualifier progresses directly to the Prada Cup final, while the other two boats contest a semifinal.

The winner of that best-of-seven series moves to the final, which starts on February 13. The first team to claim seven races will claim the Prada Cup and face Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup match in March.

How important is the round robin series?

All three teams will be aiming for the top spot, to gain the advantage of automatically qualifying for the Prada Cup final. But compared to past Auckland challenger selection regattas in 2000 (11 teams) and 2003 (nine teams), there won’t be the same cut-throat feeling to the preliminary stages.

In 2000 five teams were eliminated at the end of the round robin competition while in 2003 five syndicates had packed their bags before the semifinal stage. This year there is a little more breathing space. The syndicates know that no matter what unfolds, the second and third teams are guaranteed to make the semifinals.

The history

Until 1970 the America’s Cup was limited to a single challenger. Multiple teams were involved for the first time that year, and by 1983 a trophy was commissioned for the winners of the challenger selection series (the Louis Vuitton Cup).

The challengers have been victorious on five occasions since then – 1983, 1987, 1995, 2003 and 2017, while Oracle were successful as the sole challenger in 2010.

Key men

Luna Rossa: Jimmy Spithill, Francesco Bruni, Max Sirena.

Helmsman Spithill has been involved in the last three America Cup matches (2010, 2013 and 2017) and his combination of X-factor, sheer belief and tough mentality make him an important asset for the Italians.

Bruni is a three-time Olympian who is competing in his fifth Cup campaign. He shares the helming duties with Spithill, which the Italians hope will result in faster transitions.

Chief executive and skipper Sirena has been on two Cup winning teams (2010 and 2017), as well as every Italian challenge since 2000.

Ineos Team UK: Ben Ainslie, Giles Scott, Leigh McMillan and Grant Simmer.

Ainslie is the biggest name in British sailing, with four Olympic gold medals. He’s also got Cup experience – he was Oracle’s tactician in 2013 – but carries a heavy burden as the helmsman and face of the syndicate.

Scott competed against Ainslie in the Finn class, then had his own Olympic triumph in Rio in 2016. In Auckland he will reprise his 2017 Bermuda role as Ainslie’s tactician while Leigh McMillan is flight controller.

Chief executive Simmer is a Cup veteran. He has been part of 10 Cup campaigns, more than anyone else present in Auckland, and has four wins to his credit (1983, 2003, 2007 and 2013).

American Magic: Dean Barker (helmsman), Terry Hutchinson (skipper).

Helmsman Barker was with Team New Zealand for almost two decades and four campaigns, before helming the Japanese challenge in 2017.

Barker was part of Team New Zealand’s pioneering ‘flight’ efforts in 2012 and few have more experience with foiling yachts at this level.

Chief executive and skipper Hutchinson has four Cup challenges behind him and has raced alongside Barker in more than 40 regattas over the years, most recently in the TP-52s.

What can we expect?

Teams will improve across the regatta, even day to day, as the learning curve is so steep on these boats. But there is not much room for testing in the racing phase – you want to be at your best, going as fast as possible – so the period next week, in between the race days will be vital for tweaks and adjustments.

How are teams shaping up?

American Magic looked the best of the challengers during the America’s Cup World Series in December, just shading Luna Rossa with Ineos Team UK (literally) miles back.

The British have made gains since then – with a massive number of changes to their boat – but the other teams haven’t been standing still either.

Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena is satisfied with their work over the last three weeks.

“Every change we did have been very good so far, we are very pleased with that, and with the design that allowed those changes,” said Sirena on Thursday.

American Magic skipper Terry Hutchinson is also cautiously confident, and the United States team have been mainly finetuning, given their baseline performance in December was already high.

The British are the great unknown. They have definitely improved since December, but whether it is enough to be competitive, especially in the light winds, in a moot point.

Sir Ben Ainslie’s match-racing skills will keep them in touch off the starts and hopefully (from a neutral perspective) they can engage the opposition during the race.

Patriot seems to be the best all-round boat, while Luna Rossa is particularly good in the lighter airs. Discerning Britannia’s strengths wasn’t that easy in December, but they will be more comfortable in a strong breeze.

The round robin verdict

It’s hard to see anything other than American Magic and Luna Rossa fighting for top spot. Ineos Team UK could be competitive – and can’t be written off – but the British are racing the clock and may not find their best form until the semifinal.

Heading into the Cup racing?

• Be aware that traffic will be busy, and parking will be very limited.

• Give yourself plenty of time and think about catching a ferry, train or bus instead.

• Make sure your AT HOP card is in your pocket. It’s the best way to ride to the Cup.

• For more ways to enjoy race day, visit at.govt.nz/americascup.

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