Prada digs out from big hole in Race 1 win

Italians overcome penalty for AmericaOne collision

January 27, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- It could have turned out to be a big mistake. Prada skipper Francesco de Angelis even promised to learn from it. The Italian America's Cup syndicate, however, made amends by taking advantage of a wind shift to defeat AmericaOne yesterday in the first race of the best-of-nine challenger finals.

Prada claimed a 24-second victory over Paul Cayard's American crew, but because of a minor collision just before the starting gun, the Italians had to dig out from a big hole.

As the boats turned toward the starting line in prerace maneuvers, Prada's bow kissed the port quarter of AmericaOne. Up went a red and gold striped protest flag from the American cockpit, and the race committee ordered the Italians to make a 270-degree penalty turn at some time during the race.

Despite the pressure, de Angelis was a picture of composure after he acknowledged his mistake at the post-race news conference.

"It is nice to win, but this is just the first race," de Angelis said. "We know that all the races will be tough. We will just think about tomorrow."

What happened on the third leg of the race, a beat into the wind, turned out to be the break the Italians needed to overcome the penalty turn.

After leading by 25 seconds after the first mark and 33 seconds after the second, Prada tactician Torben Grael directed de Angelis to break away from its tight cover of AmericaOne and sail right. The Italians kept going right, while AmericaOne stayed on the left-hand side of the course.

In the light and shifty wind conditions, the Italians could well have been throwing the race away. But de Angelis remained confident as he kept sailing farther and farther to the right. At one stage there was more than a mile between the racing yachts -- more distance than at any time between any of the boats during the challenger elimination races.

The gamble paid off. Just as the Italians anticipated, the wind shifted into the right and gained in strength. The Italians went farther ahead until, just before the top mark with about a minute up their sleeves, they suddenly dived into their penalty turn and emerged back on track to round a clear 25 seconds in front -- the same lead they held at the first mark. The Italians had survived their penalty and looked set for a decisive win.

After the race, a somewhat subdued Cayard said, "I've been behind before, and I certainly expected to lose some races in this round. It happened that we took the first loss.

"I think it's an interesting challenge because we get to show ourselves, most importantly, if we can come back tomorrow and reverse the cards. There were times when the boats were pretty close."

For the final three legs of the race, Prada clamped a tight cover on AmericaOne as Cayard tacked, tacked and tacked again, trying to wriggle out from under and force an Italian error.

But halfway up the beat of the fifth leg, the Italians stopped playing Cayard's game and went with the shifts that kept them in front of AmericaOne in 10 knots of wind.

Though Cayard trimmed five seconds off de Angelis' lead, Prada still led after the fifth of six legs, by 28 seconds.

The boats turned for a downwind run toward the finish. The crew work on both boats looked exceptionally polished as they set their gennakers and raced port jibe.

It was AmericaOne's last chance to apply pressure. Attacking from behind with the freshening breeze, Cayard drew dangerously close to the Italians and halfway down the leg the Americans came down almost to the transom of Luna Rossa, Prada's boat.

The Americans were fast, but the Italians held to a tenuous lead. When Cayard jibed again, he paused halfway through, trying to lure Luna Rossa into a covering jibe. But the Italians didn't fall for it, and Prada split away with Cayard losing time and distance in the maneuver.

When the boats converged again, Luna Rossa was nearly two boat lengths ahead. De Angelis jibed ahead and to leeward to protect his position. Another jibe on both boats and the Italians could lay the finish line. When Cayard jibed again, the Italians kept going and held on for a strong finish and their 24-second victory.

Cayard said he didn't think the race turned on the speed of the boats.

"My take on it was pretty much the same as we have been saying for the past few weeks," Cayard said. "I don't think there was that much in it upwind or downwind. The boats were similar. The shifts were bigger than the differences in speed."

De Angelis agreed.

"Today, with these wind conditions," he said, "we didn't notice anything different in the two boats. I don't know how the weather will be in the next few days, but maybe with a few changes we could see something not seen so far."

The second race is scheduled for today.

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