Tough round for Oracle, but Americans will prevail
The best moments in any sport come when one watches how competitors respond when the stakes are high.
The final race of the exhausting Louis Vuitton Cup between Emirates Team New Zealand and American entry BMW Oracle Racing was an example of a crucial test. The winner of the race would earn the top seed for the semifinals and the right to choose which of the other three teams it would race in that round.
The race between the USA and New Zealand was decided on a gradual wind shift. After the start, Oracle had the lead, but did not cover the Kiwis to the right side of the course. The wind shifted toward the right and that was the end. New Zealand took a big lead and won.
Now, Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle crew will have to race against the pesky Italian team, Luna Rosa. Talented Australian James Spithill, the helmsman of Luna Rosa, will be a tough match for Oracle helmsman Chris Dickson on the starting line.
I expect the series to go at least seven or eight races before one team earns the required five wins to qualify for the Louis Vuitton final. In two previous races between Italy and the United States, the Italians led after the start, but were eventually passed.
The semifinal series will be a grind on equipment, sails and crew. In the other bracket, New Zealand is expected to coast past the fourth qualifier, Desafio Espanol, 5-0.
There are sail limitation rules. Fewer races will save wear and tear. The ultimate challenger is going to need fresh gear when the top finisher meets Alinghi in the America's Cup, which is scheduled to begin June 23.
With the wind strength and direction all over the map, host city Valencia has proven to be a tricky place to sail. This makes reading the wind difficult to predict. Over the past 24 days, 11 were lost because of poor wind conditions. All teams have weather gurus to forecast the wind. New Zealand got it right in this race, USA did not.
If there are any new design changes available, they will be rolled out for the semifinals. The teams that lose will be finished. For BMW Oracle, that is an unthinkable outcome after operating continuously for six straight years and spending a record sum (more than $120 million).
The final result on the short 12-mile races will likely be decided by sailing skill. This is a refreshing change from the technology-driven teams we have seen over the past 20 years.
Going forward, the tougher competition in the semifinals will prepare Dickson and Oracle. New Zealand must be careful not to get sloppy against a weaker competitor. In the end, I believe the Americans and Kiwis will be in the Louis Vuitton Cup final.
Gary Jobson is a sailing analyst for ESPN. He is a former collegiate sailor and was a tactician for the 1977 America's Cup-winning yacht Courageous.
In addition to ESPN, Jobson has covered the America's Cup for ABC's Good Morning America, Nightline and Wide World of Sports. He served as a commentator for TBS' coverage of yachting at the Goodwill Games from Moscow in 1986 and Seattle in 1990. He covered yachting at the 1988 and 2000 Olympics for NBC Sports, winning an Emmy Award for the 1988 Games in South Korea.