The SailGP Season 1 Grand Final takes place in Marseille at the weekend, featuring eight fleet races over three days for the six teams followed by the much-anticipated sudden-death match race where the overall series top two teams will go head-to-head for a winner-takes-all one million dollar prize.
As you read this, teams from six countries have begun preparing their F50’s in Marseille ahead of the final regatta starting on Friday 20th September. Team China and Team France started four days of training this week, while the GBR, USA, Japan and Australia crews will start training today so that they will have two days. Then there will be a practice day on Thursday.
Over the last week or so, I have spoken to all the teams prior to them heading to Marseille, and this is what they told me:
Tom Slingsby – Australia skipper (series leaders with 169 points)
“With three wins in Sydney, New York and Cowes, and a second in San Francisco, it’s been a successful season so far. From a team point of view, we are happy with how we have performed, but it’s been super close with Nathan and Team Japan. He has had a few gear failures which have put us in front, but our luck could turn.
“The competition is much closer than people realise. In light weather, GBR was winning in practice and the USA, French, Chinese are fast and getting faster. It has just been the crazy weather conditions, particularly in New York and Cowes, that have meant that the two much more experienced teams were able to survive better in the heavier conditions. With lots of pre-race practice and three days of racing, the whole fleet will get better, and that will tighten the racing. In Sydney and Cowes, we started well. Less so in San Francisco and New York, so it’s a work in progress.
‘Ahead of next week’s event we have been doing a training camp here in Sydney with Harry Price (currently third-ranked Match Racer in the world). Obviously there are no F50’s here and we have been sailing M32s. It will just remind us of our communications, who is calling lay lines, who is calling the other boat, time to kill before the start, to brush up on all the simple things, so we are clear when we hit the start line next Friday.”
Nathan Outteridge – Japan skipper (second overall with 165 points)
“There has been much talk during the events so far, that everyone is building towards Marseille. Well it is actually here now, so all the excuses have to go. We are four points behind Team Australia going into this regatta.
“The weather is very variable in Marseille. If the weather was to blow out the final day and the match races – with a Mistral or a drifter – the series leader will get the million dollar prize. So we have to bridge the gap in the first six races – so the pressure is very much on.
“Starts are critical. I’ve been looking very carefully at the footage of the starts and the moves on the first reach to the mark.”
Rome Kirby – United States skipper (third overall with 123 points)
“We can’t be timid, but it has not been an ideal season. For us the toughest regattas were New York, where we sailed on day one without an experienced wing trimmer, and we just had to make the best of it. Cowes, we should have sailed more weather heel in the bear away, and that would have prevented the capsize. It was a crazy sea-state, and we planted it, but we got back up and came back into the next race, and we moved up into third overall.
“Our aim in Marseille is to finish the season on the podium, we’ve lacked consistency so far, it would be good to put it all together and have a good regatta.”
Chris Draper – Great Britain CEO/wing trimmer (fourth overall with 120 points)
“We sailed well in the practice race in Cowes and we feel very strongly as a team that given reasonable conditions we are very competitive. We’ve come a little bit unstuck (twice) in some extreme situations. When you are learning any new skill, which we are as a team, that is often going to be the case. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the data from Tom Slingsby’s heavy weather bear-aways. He had one or two shaky ones and the Americans obviously had a bad one as well. But Tom had some very good ones as well and we can see the successful ones in terms of what is done when. Some don’t as well so with our coach Joe Glanfield we’ve spent a lot of time looking into that and learning as much as we can.
“I’ve been following the weather closely in Marseille recently and over the last three weeks there have been many mistrals. Last night the models were predicting some big mistrals but this morning that had changed. It is indeed a volatile time of year, so it’s just fingers crossed we don’t miss any days and there is good wind for the final race.
“Our goals were to give Dylan and Stu the best chance to qualify for the Olympics and to be competitive going into the final event in Marseille and I feel we’ve done that. In the series so far, we’ve missed six races, so it’s not surprising the leaders have opened a gap. Mathematically we can’t catch them, but we want to finish season one capable of winning races and that is our intention.
“The battle at the top is fascinating. Nathan Outteridge and his Artemis crew gave the Kiwis the toughest competition in Bermuda and Team Japan is fast. However, Tommy Slingsby and his team are very sound on the match racing side, so I think the $1Mmatch race final will be an incredible race.
“The reality is, as we saw in the America’s Cup, if you drop one manoeuvre in these boats, that can be the race. In this class, you can be leading by 150 metres, but that just means you’re just one slightly dodgy tack or gybe away from losing.”
Phil Robertson – China skipper (fifth overall with 117 points)
“We came into this circuit with the least experience of sailing these fast foiling catamarans. Simulator training helps but it lacks the fire hoses of water, the hum of the rigging and vibration and above all the scare factor you feel in the real deal.
“It’s been a massive learning experience for the whole team. We had a massive crash in San Francisco [above] and that affected our confidence, so it took us to Cowes to recover. For us being able to sail dry laps now means we can concentrate on winning races, rather than just getting around the course in one piece. We have ticked all the boxes and beginning to have some decent results.
“Mathematically you’d think none of the back four can make the final. But this is yacht racing and these are difficult boats. It only requires one of the two leaders to crash their boat and its next in line who would take their place – so the pressure is on for everyone. These are incredible boats to sail and any day on an F50 is one of the best days of your sailing life.”
Billy Besson, France, skipper (sixth overall on 115 points)
‘We are hoping for a week of sea breezes with no mistral. In Cowes the problem was not the wind, it was the waves. In Marseille the water should be flatter because the North Harbour course in front of the Vieux Port is close to the shore.
“The venues so far have been great for spectators and we hope that the fans coming from around Europe to see these fantastic boats live for the first time will enjoy their experience here. Every day on the water with these boats is a learning experience and with five days of practice and three days of racing we are hoping to have closed the gap on the fleet.
“You have to push these boats hard; they are stronger than expected, it was good that after the Americans capsized their boat, they were able to compete for the rest of the day. We need to keep up the pressure to improve every race. We aim to finish on the podium in Marseille, and we need to continue the progress we made in Cowes. Of course, if we win some races in Marseille that would be very popular with our French crowds.”
Images: Chris Cameron, Lloyd Images and Matt Knighton for SailGP