On water, Italians put emotion in motion

Ebullience is a plus in Prada's Cup effort

January 18, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Around this glittering waterfront, the America's Cup challenger crew from Italy's Prada partied as if there would be no tomorrow.

The blaring thud, thud, thud of acid rock, multicolored strobe lights and shrieks of laughter gave the scene a bacchanalian air, as the sailors and their supporters gave vent to the powerful emotional head of steam that has been building these past three months of racing.

The Italian crew had just gained the second of two berths for the challenger final series, joining San Francisco's AmericaOne.

Prada won the coveted spot when Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes was eliminated from the regatta Friday.

Now that the final pair had been decided, everyone seemed to be in a Mardi Gras mood. Everyone, that is, except the New Zealand defenders.

Hunkered down behind the security screens surrounding their compound by the harbor's edge, the defenders were soberly assessing the likely outcome of the best-of-nine challenger finals. The series, which will begin next Tuesday, will produce one exceptionally strong America's Cup challenger.

That challenger will be either St. Francis Yacht Club's AmericaOne or Prada. There could not be more disparate teams. Aboard AmericaOne, the aggressive, businesslike Californians, serious almost to a fault, and, aboard Prada's Luna

Rossa, the stylish, emotionally charged Italians, shouting, gesticulating, calling upon the saints.

They have only one thing in common: tremendous boat speed.

And that is what the Kiwis are worried about.

On Feb. 19, one of these teams, having become the 30th America's Cup challenger, will come face-to-face with the New Zealanders and quickly discover on which side of history's ledger they will fall: among the many vanquished or the very few victors whose names are etched on the silver base of yachting's greatest prize.

No one can say whether the surviving challenger will topple the New Zealanders. Yet the signs are there. The Cup is, in a sense, already trembling on its pedestal in Auckland's Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.

There are those who predict Paul Cayard's AmericaOne will win the Cup. Not might or could, but will. Then there are others who are hedging their bets.

The reason? The Italians.

Despite the demeanor of their mild-mannered skipper, Francesco de Angelis, the Italians display an over-the-top emotionalism. Their outward behavior may appear to be a kind of Achilles' heel, suggesting that when real pressure comes, they will buckle.

But that's not the view held by Laurent Esquier, who manages the shoreside operation for the megamillion-dollar Italian syndicate.

Esquier is a Frenchman who has been around the America's Cup scene a long time. He has known winners and losers, and he is convinced that with the Italians he is, once again, with a winner.

"My insight is extremely simple," Esquier said. "I acknowledge that we do not have as much expertise as the Americans. As a matter of fact, we have about the same level of expertise as James Spithill [the Young Australia skipper who bombed badly in the first three elimination rounds], so this is extremely little.

"As to pressure, I think we have demonstrated so far that we are able to bounce back after major breakages."

An example: Luna Rossa snapped its "lucky" mast in half in only 14 knots of breeze in a semifinal race against AmericaOne, allowing the Americans to notch an easy victory. Within three hours, the Italians had a new mast on the boat and were back on the water tuning their complicated rig.

"In fact, in any objective analysis, I think you can see that, contrary to expectations, we have handled the pressure far better than any other team over those past 40 races," Esquier said.

"So, on that side of the equation, I am quite satisfied. Yes, so far as match-racing is concerned, we don't have the knowledge. But is match-racing skill the determining factor to win the Cup?

"It is, I think, one factor. But far more important, one must have a fast boat. Then match-racing skill comes into play. I can say, without hesitation, that the Italians do have a very, very fast boat."

But it is not just a question of the Italians coping with on-the-water pressure. They also have an ability to cope with psychological pressure from within their camp.

After all, syndicate chief Patrizio Bertelli, who is reported to be spending more than $80 million of his own money on this campaign, has, on more than one occasion, let his temper get the better of him.

"Of course, [many people] who have no idea of the Latin culture would interpret that as something extremely negative," Esquier said. "But for those of us who know the words he uses, the way he uses them and the body language, this is not a negative, but something extremely positive.

"This is part of our daily life. Yes, there is pressure, but it is a good pressure. If you go into any Italian pub from Florence on down, you will see Italians shouting and gesticulating at each other. You think they are fighting, but not at all; they are discussing politics, football, bicycle racing.

"When Italians talk loudly and use their hands," Esquier said, "this does not necessarily mean they are going to kill the other guy. In fact, these are signs of affection. They are communicating ...

"Passion is not something one can bottle up inside. Being Latin, he must express it. This is perhaps something new in the America's Cup. Who knows? This may be our secret weapon; one thing we have which the Americans do not."

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