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Round-robin 1: a few surprises

By ED BAIRD
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The Louis Vuitton Cup, the challenger series for the America's Cup, has been under way since Sept. 30. Nine teams from six countries are competing for the chance to try to dethrone two-time winner Team New Zealand beginning Feb. 15.

I was part of the winning America's Cup team in 1995 and a skipper in the last America's Cup and now am part of the Outdoor Life Network's broadcasting team. My job is to explain the technicalities of the sport. The New Zealand broadcasters say they like my perspective. I think they just like my American accent!

Teams seem to be falling into a pecking order a bit different from the early rankings. The strongest teams are some of the wealthiest, with plenty of time on the water and significant design exploration. OneWorld of Seattle and Oracle BMW of San Francisco, along with Swiss favorite Alinghi, are atop the leaderboard with solid performances. All are supported by billionaires and raced by the world's best sailors.

The second tier consists of 2000 America's Cup runner-up Prada, from Italy, Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes and first-time competitor Victory Challenge of Sweden. They are competing for the fourth spot that gets them into the double-chance round.

Prada was expected to be in the top group but has had a rocky start. From Day 1, Prada seemed nervous and edgy. Syndicate leader Patrizio Bertelli is said to be having disagreements over crew selection and he "demoted" head designer Doug Peterson, a two-time Cup winner.

Stars & Stripes was expected to surprise but has struggled for its points. The boat is noticeably more narrow than the rest and seems to pay for it by heeling over more than its wider competitors. This puts Stars & Stripes at a disadvantage in stronger winds, of which there have have been plenty.

Sweden has impressed everyone, winning some hard races and threatening when it has lost. If it has any speedy modifications up its sleeve, it could be the sleeper to get into the top group.

Just below the second group is GBR Challenge, representing England for the first time since this event was in Freemantle, Australia, in 1987. England won more sailing medals than any other country in the recent Sydney Olympics, so it does not lack for experience, but it hasn't scored as well as many expected. England is one team that could make a big move, especially if its second boat, rumored to have an unusual forward rudder, proves to be a speedster.

Mascalzone Latino of Italy and Le Defi of France are clearly at the bottom of the standings. The Italians admittedly are trying to gain some experience for future Cups.

The French have been putting forth a big effort since finishing sixth in the Louis Vuitton Cup here in 2000 and are disappointed to be at the bottom of the standings.

Round-robin race No. 1 ends today. Round 2 is scheduled to begin Oct. 21.

-- Ed Baird is a world class yachtsman from St. Petersburg.

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