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An overhauled hull gives Prada speed

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The scramble for points has heated up at the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Underachieving teams are making drastic changes, looking for the slightest edge.

As Round 2 continues, Italy's Prada has been the most aggressive in modifying its equipment. During a week's break after Round 1, it revamped the bow of its 78-foot, carbon-fiber International America's Cup Class yacht, a massive task for boat builders.

Prada has conceded it erred by not using the double-knuckled shape developed by the previous America's Cup winner, Team New Zealand. When Prada's boat emerged from the shed the day before Round 2, it looked more like the rest of the fleet.

Prada seems to be on the right track. Coupled with changes to the rig and sails, the new configuration has improved Prada's speed and it hasn't lost a race since making the changes. The team hopes to threaten the leaders in this challenger series for the America's Cup.

There are nine teams racing in the Louis Vuitton Cup, basically an America's Cup qualifier scheduled to end in January, with the schedule largely dependant on wind restrictions.

The wind must be between 7-19 knots, roughly 8 and 22 mph based on land speeds, or that race will be postponed. Because of these restrictions, completion of the Louis Vuitton Cup may be delayed.

The Louis Vuitton Cup winner will challenge Team New Zealand in the America's Cup. As the defending America's Cup champ, Team New Zealand skips the Louis Vuitton Cup and prepares for the best-of-nine America's Cup series that begins Feb. 15. Like Prada, other challengers made changes, mostly minor as there wasn't much time to test performance and recalculate between rounds.

But there have been major personnel changes. Most notably, American team Oracle BMW Racing has replaced U.S. Virgin Islander Peter Holmberg as skipper with New Zealander Chris Dickson.

Dickson, who has U.S. residency, has long been a controversial figure, and this year he was sidelined by Oracle BMW Racing because of internal clashes. He has skippered entries in two Louis Vuitton Cups, the last in San Diego in 1995, when his team finished third.

Team boss Larry Ellison said he benched Holmberg, the world's top-ranked match racer, because he wasn't getting results. Ellison's team was considered a favorite in this event but won only five of eight races in Round 1 and lost its first match in Round 2.

Dickson hadn't spent much time around the Oracle BMW Racing team for months, and there has been talk around the America's Cup village that it was a desperate move and unlikely to be successful.

France's Le Defi Areva, which hasn't won a race, England's GBR Challenge and Sweden's Victory Challenge also benched their skippers. Each has improved since switching to backup skippers.

The heat hasn't gotten to the two leaders. Swiss team Alinghi, led by 1995 and 2000 America's Cup winner Russell Coutts, and Seattle based OneWorld Challenge each have won all but one match. Their losses are to each other, and they are favored to meet in the final in January.

At the end of Round 2, the weakest team will be sent home. Those remaining will pair off for elimination rounds.

Quietly smiling in the background is Team New Zealand. Having lost many of its core sailors to higher-paying teams, including Oracle BMW Racing after the last Cup, it must be enjoying the fireworks.

After a fundraiser last week, Team New Zealand, the only team from outside the United States to win and defend the America's Cup, launched the second of two new boats. The team is on the water daily, putting the boats and crew through trials before the America's Cup.

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

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