Kiwis close in on sweep of Prada

Bertelli accuses Italian team of using `suicidal tactics' in loss

March 01, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli accused his Italian team of "suicidal tactics" after its fourth straight loss to New Zealand today all but doomed its chances in the first-to-five America's Cup.

The Italians now face sudden death in the competition for racing's most prestigious trophy which could end as early as tomorrow (tonight in Baltimore).

One more loss in any of the next five races, and the Italians can pack their bags for the trip back to their home berth on the Tuscan coast of northwest Italy to prepare for next time.

Bertelli said the crew, which he has backed with more than $50 million, "gave the race away" to Team New Zealand on Kiwi skipper Russell Coutts' 38th birthday.

Bertelli said the wind conditions were in favor of his boat, Luna Rossa, which had proved it had the same speed, if not more, than the New Zealand boat today.

The row erupted after the Italians, in the lead for the first time in the series, switched from the powerful right-hand side to the left. The move let the Kiwis find the wind and seize a lead which was never in risk for the next five legs.

"We didn't see it as suicidal," said Italian tactician Torben Grael. "We thought we were doing the right thing. The way it ended up, it was not, but that is part of racing."

On his way to shore, a dejected Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis said: "We will try hard."

But to expect the challengers, who have posed no real threat to Team New Zealand in four outings, to string five straight victories together borders on fantasy.

Much more likely, the Kiwis, led by skipper Coutts, will inflict a humiliating 5-0 defeat on the Italians to become the first crew to defend successfully the Cup outside the United States.

"That's the plan," said a confident Coutts. "The series has gone on longer than anyone expected [because of four race postponements]. We would like to get it finished tomorrow."

With tropical rainstorms moving in from the north, the winds on the Hauraki Gulf switched from southwest off the land to a northeasterly sea breeze at 8 knots for today's race -- the sort of conditions in which Italy's Prada-sponsored Luna Rossa thrived during the earlier qualifying races.

But even in such favorable conditions, the Prada boat proved no match for the Kiwis' Black Magic, which has set the pace in all races in all conditions.

Today, Black Magic proved beyond doubt that its innovative design has made it the world's all-round fastest boat of its class, and its crew reinforced its reputation as the world's best match-racers.

The Kiwis, as usual, were first over the line after Coutts dominated the start-box duel, flying for the first time the black boat's secretly tested Code Zero, a huge masthead foresail, to give him a crucial turn of maneuvering speed.

But skipper de Angelis, briefly enjoying the novel advantage of the powerful right-hand side of the course, steadily overhauled the defenders to take the lead for the first time in the competition.

Then the Italians made a crucial mistake, deciding to cross to the left and cede the right -- which they had vainly tried to obtain throughout the previous three races -- to the Kiwis.

"We thought the wind would shift to the left," said de Angelis after the race. Of Bertelli's statement, he said: "It doesn't help to have it before the press conference.

"What I can say is that a sailing team tries to find its own strength and resources. I don't know if actually the statement can make the team more angry for the next day.

"I am happy with the team I have, and I know the next time I go racing we just want to do the best we can, and, of course, we try to win."

Said Coutts: "When we were crossing, I thought it was not a great situation, but as the breeze developed, it looked better on the right side."

The crossover all but sealed Prada's fate. But on the boat, Grael was shouting to de Angelis: "Don't worry. It's going to be a messy day. Anything can happen."

What did happen was that Team New Zealand, riding the pressure, started to pull ahead to round the first mark with a 45-second lead at the start of a long and basically unchallenged sail to victory.

On the downwind leg, Prada managed to close the gap, as it had on several runs in the earlier races, but it just didn't have the speed to get back into contention.

Coutts covered almost every Italian move to protect his 200-meter advantage from any major advance by de Angelis, restricting the Kiwi loss on the leg to just 6 seconds.

"Don't give up, guys," shouted Grael, as the crew changed into upwind mode, with the Kiwis still keeping tight control of the race from the commanding right-hand side. At the halfway mark, Team New Zealand was 1 minute, 39 seconds ahead.

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