- Gary Jobson, Sailing commentator
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In the end, the only thing that really counts is the America's Cup final match. But, at this point in the grueling challenger trials for the Louis Vuitton Cup, two teams are very much alive.
Emirates Team New Zealand takes on Italy's Luna Rossa in a best-of-nine series, which begins Friday. Picking a winner is no easy task. I expect the match to extend past seven races. Both teams have strong attributes and some weaknesses.
Most of the cheering around Valencia's gold-plated waterfront will be for the Italians. All of Europe would rather see the America's Cup remain on the continent. That prospect would be guaranteed if Italy prevails and sails against the defender, Alinghi from Switzerland.
New Zealand has a lot of momentum since its sailing-mad country first challenged for the America's Cup in 1987. New Zealand has sailed in the Cup or been a challenger finalist eight straight times. Returning the Cup to New Zealand would be an impressive feat after losing five straight races to Switzerland in 2003.
In order to get to the job done, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron recruited round-the-world veteran and hero Grant Dalton to manage the campaign. So far, so good, but New Zealand has a tough task ahead against Italy.
Since first challenging in 1983, the Italians have fielded multiple teams. They reached the America's Cup finals twice, 1992 and 2000, but were defeated by a combined score of 10-1.
Italian teams have suffered from the mercurial Patrizio Bertelli's management style. In 2000, he issued a press release blasting the performance of his crew during the America's Cup. In 2003, he fired his designer, Doug Peterson, after the very first race of the trials. Many have compared Bertelli to baseball's George Steinbrenner. Bertelli and his wife, Miuccia Prada, run the giant Prada fashion house. But this time, Bertelli has stayed in the background.
On the race course, Luna Rossa seems to get stronger every day. The team routed America's BMW Oracle Racing 5-1. This performance was no fluke. USA was outsailed. New Zealand has to be concerned.
Here's my head to head assessment:
New Zealand: Dean Barker is consistently a strong competitor. He sailed a Finn dinghy in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In 2000, he was the understudy of three-time America's Cup-winning helmsman Russell Coutts and steered the first race in 2000. But, in 2003, he lost every start to Coutts and seemed to lose his cool under pressure.
Italy: Australia's James Spithill has been hot on the starting line. He is young and very aggressive. When the pressure's, he is ready.
New Zealand: American Terry Hutchinson is at the height of his competitive career. He is a gifted strategist and calming influence on Barker. This is the biggest race of his career.
Italy: Brazil's Torben Grael is one of the elite sailors in the world. He has won two gold, one silver and one bronze medal in the last five Olympics. He was a tactician for Italy in 2000 and recently raced around the world.
New Zealand: New Zealand is sailing with two Americans and 15 Kiwis. Everyone speaks English. It is a homogenous group.
Italy: Italy includes sailors from six countries. Too many different languages can be problematic during tight maneuvers.
Edge: New Zealand.
New Zealand: When New Zealand won the America's Cup in 1995, 92 percent of the television stations were tuned to the races. New Zealand is a sailing-mad country and was stung after losing in 2003.
Italy: The Italians enthusiasm for their sporting heroes is impressive. They have had high television ratings. Italy's World Cup soccer victory was a national triumph.
New Zealand: At the end of the early rounds and semis, New Zealand was the top scorer. They were pushed hard by a pesky Spanish team. They appear to be ready and at their peak.
Italy: Defeating BMW Oracle Racing 5-1 shocked owner Larry Ellison and everyone else watching the America's Cup. In head-to-head competition, Italy and New Zealand are 1-1.
Edge: New Zealand
New Zealand: American Clay Oliver is the key ingredient on Emirates Team New Zealand. This group has been evolving steadily over the past 20 years. The collective wisdom is a huge asset.
Italy: Design has been Italy's biggest problem over the past 24 years. But this time, there are two reasons Italy's troubles might be over: Bruce Nelson and Tom Schnackenberg. Nelson is a capable American who won with Dennis Conner in 1987 and has been a mainstay with several teams over the years. He is a very smart sailor in his own right and has a solid engineering background at the University of Michigan's highly esteemed Naval Architecture program. If there was a hidden engine in the America's Cup over the past 30 years, it's New Zealand's Schnackenberg.
Two reasons for trials are to select the best team and to train that team. A curve ball to the process will be if BMW Oracle Racing decided to practice with the defender Alinghi. This would go against the accepted practice of not sailing against the enemy. If these sessions take place, it could be a serious setback for the challenger because Alinghi will be able to compare their boat's performance based on the trial races between BMW Oracle Racing and the other boats.
Based on what we've seen so far, I give a slight edge to Italy. I'm sure the series will go at least seven or eight races.
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.
5dBonnie D. Ford