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AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The Louis Vuitton Cup races take on new importance this week, as the quarterfinals begin Tuesday.
In less than two weeks, two competitors will join Italy's Mascalzone Latino as the early teams to be knocked out of the qualifier for the America's Cup, a nine-race series that begins Feb. 15. Mascalzone was the first team eliminated from an initial field of nine after a month of racing.
The quarterfinals are best of seven. Opponents have been matched based on round-robin results, with the early leader, Switzerland's Alinghi, picking its competitors.
Alinghi chose 2000 America's Cup runner-up Prada from Italy. The match features the same skippers who raced in the America's Cup in 2000, Russell Coutts and Francesco de Angelis.
Two-time Cup winner Coutts, who defected from New Zealand to race for Switzerland in this event, beat de Angelis 5-0 in 2000 and is looking for a repeat.
Prada has been a team in turmoil since racing began in October. After making headlines by firing its head designer, Doug Peterson, who had designed two America's Cup winners, Prada rushed to modify one of its two boats to copy the bow style of its competitors.
Racing the round robins with the first boat, Prada also made major modifications on its second boat, reshaping much of the hull, and is undecided about which to race in the quarterfinals.
The rules separate the top four ranked teams and the bottom four into double and single chance groups. Losers of the top four pairings get a second chance to remain in the event through a repechage against the winners of the bottom four. Losers of the matches amongst the bottom four go home.
In addition to Alinghi and Prada, the second top four pairing is two American teams, Oracle BMW Racing from San Francisco and OneWorld Challenge from Seattle. Software billionaires head both syndicates.
Oracle boss Larry Ellison races on his team occasionally and has made headlines by changing skippers, from Peter Holmberg to Chris Dickson. Since the change Oracle hasn't lost a race.
Nextel founder Craig McCaw and Microsoft founder Paul Allen have been aboard their OneWorld boats as 17th men (non-race crew rider position) but have left the team management to skipper Peter Gilmour. OneWorld was undefeated in Round 1 but lost three matches in Round 2.
The matchup between American teams is expected to be the fiercest of the quarterfinals, as Gilmour and Holmberg have aggressive styles.
In the bottom-four, single-chance group, Sweden's Victory Challenge, by virtue of its fifth-place finish in the round robin, chose to race France's LeDefi Areva.
Le Defi was 2-14 in the round robin and is not expected to advance, even though it has changed skippers. Luc Pillot, who drove for most of the first round and all the second, has been replaced by Philippe Presti, the original skipper when the Louis Vuitton Cup started.
The final matchup is American Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes against GBR Challenge of England. This is another match that is too close to call.
The English have sailed well but have lacked speed. They have an unusual twin-keeled boat waiting in the wings they could bring out for the quarterfinals.
GBR has trained on the second boat, but so far it has proven unruly and difficult to control. If the English team brings it out against Stars & Stripes it would be a high-risk move, but it might be its only chance to stay in the event.
Stars & Stripes has been hot and cold, not racing particularly well in Round 2 but having potential to climb the ladder into the top group.
Quarterfinal racing can be seen on the Outdoor Life Network.
-- Ed Baird is a world class sailor from St. Petersburg and a commentator for the Louis Vuitton Cup television broadcast.