America’s Cup holder Oracle Team USA is staring down the barrel of defeat against a powerful challenge from Emirates Team New Zealand.
The slick, pacy Kiwis have won the first four races in the battle for the Auld Mug to lead 3-0 in the best-of-seven series, given USA’s point in hand from the qualifying rounds.
Four years ago, the Americans, guided by Australian skipper Jimmy Spithill, pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in sport.
From 8-1 down and facing match point, Larry Ellison’s defending champions won eight races in a row to triumph 9-8.
There was much talk of a “ThreePeat” in the Bermuda build-up, but for that to happen the Americans will have to conjure another remarkable act of escapology.
There are five days until the concluding races on the Great Sound, and Spithill admits they have their work cut out.
“We’ve been here before, it’s not over,” he said. “We’ve got five very important days. We need to use those days wisely. We need to go faster, it’s pretty obvious.”
Team New Zealand has dominated the opening salvo, winning both races Saturday and Sunday by significant margins through a combination of better starts, slicker crew work, fewer mistakes and a lightning-fast boat, aided to some extent by the “cyclors” or leg grinders in place of traditional arm-powered winches to better power the hydraulic systems.
“We’ve got a couple of good starts, the boat’s going really fast and the boys are doing a good job to get it around the racetrack nice and smoothly,” said Kiwi helmsman Peter Burling.
“It’s turning out pretty nicely for us.”
New Zealand, which beat Artemis in the challenger final, has fought back formidably since capsizing against the British team in the round-robin phase.
The Americans will spend their time poring over the data and trying to work out what changes they can make to their foil and rudder packages to eke out extra boat speed. Rules preclude any big structural changes to their boat.
In 2013 Oracle Team USA made use of some lay days to make crucial tweaks to their boat set-up and changed some personnel, bringing in legendary British Olympic sailor Sir Ben Ainslie as tactician.
They also benefitted from the luck of the wind Gods when what could have been the decisive race was scratched because it was over the time limit due to light airs. New Zealand were well clear, and within sight of the line at the time.
New Zealand last won the America’s Cup in 2003 but it has lost two finals since then.
Revenge, and the chance to take the Cup back to the Land of the Long White Cloud is a distinct possibility.
But as Spithill — known as “Pitbull” for his aggressive racing tactics — knows it’s never over until the Auld Mug has been presented.