Skipper Tom Slingsby and defending champion Team Australia won all three fleet races as New Zealand’s stars failed to fire on the first day of the second season of the SailGP global league in Bermuda.
Slingsby had his doubts after not having raced in 14 months due to a pandemic shutdown. But he had strong starts in all three races aboard his 50-foot foiling catamaran in the eight-boat fleet to take a big lead heading into the final day on Monday.
The Australians sit atop the leaderboard with 30 points, followed by France with 23, Japan 23, the United States 20, Spain 19, Great Britain 17, Denmark 11 and New Zealand 11.
Two more fleet races are scheduled Sunday, with the top three teams advancing to the winner-take-all final.
New Zealand America’s Cup stars Peter Burling and Blair Tuke struggled mightily with finishes of sixth, last and last after a highly unfavourable build-up.
The New Zealand team were the last to arrive in Bermuda and had just one day to train on their boat before the first day of racing.
However, that unfamiliarity with a boat was shared by Jimmy Spithill’s US team and didn’t stop the Australian skipper from keeping his team in firm contention after day one.
“We’re basically sitting mid-fleet, which is where we deserve to be,” said Spithill, a two-time America’s Cup winner.
“It was just one of those days where a few inches here or there we could have definitely been further up the leaderboard. But we’ve got to keep it in perspective because ourselves and the Kiwis have got very, very little time on these boats and on a day like today that definitely shows.”
Slingsby, a former America’s Cup winner and an Olympic gold medalist, picked up where the first season ended in 2019, when the Australians won the championship and the $US1 million ($NZ1.39m) winner-take-all purse.
“It was amazing to get out on the race track. It was windy, it was pretty wild,” said Slingsby, who added that it was a perfect way to settle into the new season.
“We had some doubts heading into the season,” added Slingsby. “We hadn’t been performing amazing in training, so it’s good to sort of silence those thoughts and know that we’re still talented, we’ve got the skills to win and we’ve just got to perform when we have to.”
A week earlier, the Australians capsized the American boat during practice while waiting for their boat to be commissioned.
Billy Besson helmed France to finishes of 2-4-4 and Nathan Outteridge steered Japan to finishes of 3-2-5. While Spithill’s reconfigured US team went 4-6-3.
Spithill was second in the close first race before Ainslie cut him off at the top mark and drew a penalty. Australia got a split and worked around to the wind and the US boat couldn’t climb back up.
In the third race, Australia and Britain had a match race at the front of the fleet. They split at the top gate, with the Aussies boxing out an opportunity for the British to pass and extending on the downwind leg to sweep the day.
Ainslie skippered the British boat to finishes of 7-7-2.
The foiling 50-foot catamarans are an updated version of the boats that were used in the 2017 America’s Cup on Bermuda’s Great Sound, when Burling skippered Team New Zealand to a dominating win against Spithill’s Oracle Team USA.
The New Zealand team will now need to construct a miracle comeback on Monday in order to qualify for the Bermuda title race featuring the top two teams.
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