America's Cup: Team NZ's race against time to solve how to unleash the potential of Te Rehutai

Team New Zealand had the quicker boat. So why, for so much of their clash with Luna Rossa, was the regatta so close? National Correspondent Dana Johannsen explains.
It was the burning question of the 36th Americas Cup. And Americas Cups 1 through 35 for that matter.

Day after day Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling and his Red Bull-clutching Luna Rossa counterpart Jimmy Spithill fronted the post-race press conferences and were prodded as to which team had the faster boat.

The question was posed in a myriad of different ways - some subtle, some not so - each time eliciting the same answer: theres nothing in it.

I think the boats are still incredibly even, Burling said on Tuesday, heading into what would be the final day of an extraordinary Americas Cup match.

I agree with Pete, said Spithill.

Peter Burling and Jimmy Spithill at times sang from the same songsheet during the Americas Cup press conferences.

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It was only after Team NZ crossed the finish line in race 10 securing their seventh victory to successfully defend the Cup, after the laps of honour both on water and on land, after Burling held the Cup aloft once more and after the confetti and champagne soaked celebrations, that shoulders relaxed and the answers were more forthcoming.

Team NZ trimmer Glenn Ashby described the Kiwi boat as a rocket ship. Flight controller Blair Tuke called it an absolute weapon. Spithill took the metaphor further, admitting coming up against Te Rehutai felt a bit like brharapg a knife to a gunfight.

By the end, it could no longer be denied New Zealands design package - its small, low-drag foils and an innovative, aerodynamic hull design - gave the Kiwi boat a clear speed advantage over Luna Rossa.

Peter Burling holds aloft the Americas Cup among a cloud of champagne and confetti.

Given what we now know about the relative strengths of each of the boats, one of the great curiosities of this Americas Cup match was how the contest remained so tightly poised.

Over the first three days of racing Team NZ and Luna Rossa traded wins, leaving the contest deadlocked at 3-3 by the end of the weekend.

Such a scoreline is almost unheard of in America's Cup matches. Youd have to go back to 1983, when Australia II fought its way back from a 3-1 deficit against Dennis Conners Liberty to claim the best-of-seven series 4-3, to find a similarly even contest.

It left the experts scratching their heads, with theories coming and going in quick succession.

It was all about the starts early on - win the start, win the race.

But while the scoreboard suggested it was an absorbing contest, the racing turned out to be rather, well, boring.

The stable breeze out on course E, the south eastern-most course away from the more shifty conditions on inner harbour courses, created few passing lanes. It was two minutes of excitement, then the race was effectively over. Cue the suggestive jokes.

With the scoreboard precariously poised, it felt like Team NZ were locked in a race against time to crack the complex puzzle of how to get the most out of their high-tech flying machine.

Each evening after the team came off the water, the brains trust, made up of design, sailing and coaching staff would gather to analyse the data coming off the boats and review the race footage.

Phil Walter/Getty Images
Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton keeps a close eye on Team New Zealands progress.

Ashby says the team knew they had a fast boat - the data confirmed it - but it was a case of figuring out how to unleash Te Rehutais potential.

The first couple of days we were sort of a bit deer in headlights, because you finally get to go racing in an Americas Cup, and it really did take us a couple of days to get into our stride, get our communication firing, and learn how to get off the startline against those guys, says Ashby

Its not until you get to come up against another yacht - a polished team that has done a lot of racing - that you really get to work out where your strengths and weaknesses are. It took us a few races to work out where we actually needed to position ourselves, and what moding and how we would actually set up our boat to best combat the strengths of Luna Rossa.

You only had to listen in to the onboard discussion to figure out the Italian boats key weapon. Spithill and his co-helmsman Francesco Bruni could often be heard talking about switching into high mode. The Luna Rossa boat was able to sail at a narrower angle - thereby making more direct progress towards the mark - without too much of a speed trade-off.

Team NZ design lead Dan Bernasconi says the moding was particularly effective in helping the Italian boat get a jump off the startline and set themselves up in a controlling position up the first beat.

Andrew Cornaga/Photosport
Luna Rossa co-helmsman Francesco Bruni boasts a wealth of match racing experience.

From there, Spithill and Brunis match-racing experience came to the fore, getting the elbows out and preventing Team NZ from getting on the parts of the racecourse they wanted to be.

The boats travel very quickly, youre sailing through puff and lulls at a huge rate of knots. Its like dot-to-dot on steroids ... so the computing that Pete and the rest of the boys on board have to do is at such a fast pace, sometimes you dont get times to have a conversation, you have to react and anticipate at times what the next move is going to be.

It wasnt just match racing tactics and course management that was given attention in the debriefs. The new cutting edge boats brought with them a brand new set of challenges. If you thought you heard a lot about gas and dirty air during this regatta, it was because it had an unexpectedly big impact on the performance of the boats.

The concept of the leading boat throwing windwash back on the boat in its wake is nothing new in sailing. But because of the speeds these super-charged AC75 boats travelled at, the impact of that turbulence was amplified.

Phil Walter/Getty Images
Team NZ trimmer Glenn Ashby gives a thumbs up before the opening race of the America's Cup match.

Ashby says even the helicopter pilots hovering above the racecourse reported getting buffeted around as they went through the dirty air coming off the boats.

The gas that comes off the boats is something that has been quite incredible and nothing we have ever experienced before, because the boats are so aerodynamically advanced, he says.

The vortex that actually comes off not only the hull, but the sails, the whole package together is something that had never been seen before. We are pushing realms and boundaries both hydrodynamically, obviously with foiling, but also aerodynamically, so that created unique challenges for us, and it was something else we had to factor in.

The highly complex AC75 foiling monohulls created brand new challenges for the crews.

The early tit-for-tat action in the Cup might have been a boon for the event, which, following a condensing of the schedule due to Auckland being in alert level 3 lockdown, threatened to be over in a weekend. But the tight scoreline was not as welcomed by the families of Team NZ.

I cant wait for this to be over, said Burlings mother, Heather, who with husband Richard rode every tack and gybe of the regatta.

Over those tightly poised opening few days, Heather says she felt even sicker than she did four years ago in Bermuda, when Team NZ survived a number of scares, including a dramatic capsize in the semifinals of the challenger series, before stunning Oracle Team USA in the Cup match.

But the change in psychology from being challenger to defender played havoc with Heathers nerves.

Bermuda had a different feel to it, it was that whole Luke Skywalker taking on Darth Vader you know? This time were kind of Darth Vader, she says.

The rest of the world wants to see us get beaten.

ACE | Studio Borlenghi
Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa brought out the best in the AC75s for Auckland 2021.

There was a sense Monday would be moving day.

After testing the waters in the opening few days, it was thought day five would be the day things clicked into place for Team NZ. Light winds the previous day had seen the abandonment of racing, giving the Kiwi team extra time to tidy up a few things on the boat, as well as continue their on-going analysis of Luna Rossas data.

Things did not look good when Team NZ failed to win the start, but Te Rehutai finally showed the speed advantage that had only been hinted at up until then, with Burling and crew working the boundaries of the course to find a way past Luna Rossa.

It was great to get a pass, finally, Burling said following the race, echoing the thoughts of sailing fans everywhere.

From there, Team NZ never looked like getting beaten. They sailed better and faster as the week went on, taking seconds off the speed of their manoeuvres, starting stronger and revealing the right sailing modes in the boat to counter the Italians.

The race of the regatta came in race nine on Tuesday, when the event finally delivered, as Burling noted, what was promised on the brochure.

Racing on course C - the inner harbour stadium course - for the first and what was to be the only time in the Cup match, the two teams delivered high octane racing, with tight crosses, multiple lead changes and brilliant match racing tactics in shifty conditions.

The race demonstrated the relative strengths of each team: Team New Zealands serious wheels and Luna Rossas serious smarts. For five legs, the Italian syndicate managed to fend off each of Team NZs speed assaults, before the defenders managed to get on the right side of a strong shift - now referred to by Bruni as the Kiwi puff - approaching the bottom gate and seize control of the race.

That win brought the Kiwis on to match point, but with fading conditions the second race of the day was abandoned, forcing the match into Wednesday.

They finished on a high note too. After waiting for the 10 knot north-easterly breeze to finally arrive on Course A just before 5pm, Team NZ gave their most comprehensive performance of the match. Te Rehutai was in a class of her own.

She was five knots faster than her rival at times, and as they charged down the final run with a 500m lead commentator Shirley Robertson noted: This final lap is like a lap of honour.

America's Cup winners, Team New Zealand, head back into Auckland harbour surrounded by a flotilla of spectator boats.

The actual victory lap turned out to be at a much more sedate pace, as the Team NZ boat with the jubilant crew on board was slowly towed back to shore, forced to duck and weave between the huge flotilla of boats that had been out on the water to witness the Kiwis make history as the first team to successfully challenge and defend the Cup twice.

There were tens of thousands more people gathered back at the Viaduct awaiting the return of the boat.

For some of the crew on board, the incredible scenes were what had got them hooked on the Cup in the first place. Tuke remembers being an awestruck kid watching on from the dock when Team NZ first defended the Cup back in 2000.

The Americas Cup, how it captures New Zealanders is very unique, Tuke reflected back on shore.

That doesnt sit lightly with us. To defend it again and to know its with us for a bit longer is awesome. I hope Kiwi kids right around the country, not just the ones out on the Hauraki Gulf or watching in Auckland, from the top to the bottom, got to watch this and enjoy it.

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
Blair Tuke celebrates with his father Andy after the America's Cup victory against Luna Rossa.

As Team New Zealands shore crew systematically went about packing their Americas Cup winning yacht back in the shed amid the revellers in the Viaduct Harbour, Bernasconi had one small regret.

Burling had hinted in the opening press conference Te Rehutai had a sweet spot. There was a set of conditions, he said, where the team felt they were exceptionally strong. Bernasconi confirmed upwind in 15-20 knots is where we really would have seen Team NZs marine marvel hit its stride.

Looking at the heavier air forecast for later in the week, there was a small part of Bernasconi that would have been happy to see the racing extend beyond Wednesday.

We were looking at tomorrows forecast and thinking it might have been a bit of a silver lining if we were still racing tomorrow - the breeze was up and it would have been great to have some racing in more breeze, Bernasconi said.

For the sailors on board, there were no such mixed feelings.

Lifting this trophy is what we do the whole thing for, said Tuke, nodding towards the champagne soaked Americas Cup sitting on the stage next to him.

Im bloody happy to put it in the shed, Ashby chimed in.

For it means the job is done.


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