Sail of the century
Sail of the century
Mean motherf**kers. That is what it will take to win the America’s Cup for Great Britain for the first time since the competition began in 1851. That, at least, is the theory of Martin Whitmarsh, former team principal at McLaren turned chief executive of Land Rover BAR.
“There are racing drivers who are arrogant, selfish, mean, committed winners,” Whitmarsh explains. “I used to say when I was hiring racing drivers, one of my simple measures was: ‘Would I be happy for my daughter to bring him home?’ And if I was, then I had questions about him as a racing driver. Because the best racing drivers are absolutely mean motherf**kers and they are the ones who would kill their granny for the race result.”
But Sport is oversimplifying. Ainslie’s character is, Whitmarsh attests, far more complex.
“There are exceptions,” he continues. “I wouldn’t have been happy for my daughter to bring home Alain Prost, for example, or Ayrton [Senna], or Kimi [Raikkonen], or even Lewis [Hamilton]. But you would say Jenson [Button], I would…
He could compartmentalise. If you meet him out of the car, he is a nice, ordinary, affable bloke. But I think he transitions when he gets into the car. He is a different personality. And Ben is exactly the same.
“Ben is a very different person on the shore to what he is out on the water. That’s quite intriguing. Because there are a lot of racing drivers who are always the same: they’re mean motherf**kers when they’re on terra firma, just as they are when they have their backside in a racing car. Everyone is different in their approach.
“But in the white heat of competition, they have to be absolutely focused, determined. The real winners will do absolutely anything to win.”
We ask Ainslie, the most successful sailor in Olympic history with four gold medals: what if he was the same animal with his team off the boat that he is on it?
“I might be thrown off a bridge,” he replies. “[But] it’s a different intensity you have in a team sport as opposed to an individual sport. You see it with many individual sportsmen. You have to temper your emotions to the team. That’s part of team sport; bringing individual talents together. The team is only as good as the sum of its parts.”
We speak to Ainslie and Whitmarsh at the final event of the America’s Cup World Series in Fukuoka, Japan. It’s the last of a series of regattas held in nine different destinations – from Portsmouth to the Far East via, among others, Gothenburg and Chicago. Ainslie’s team won the Japan series, and therefore take a two-point head-start into the 2017 America’s Cup Challenger Series, beginning in Bermuda in May. The winner of that will then take on holders Oracle in the 2017 America’s Cup, in the same waters, the following month.
Winning the bloody thing
Whitmarsh is clearly enjoying being part of a competitive operation again after a year away from Formula 1. He knows what it’s like to be in the business of winning. His task now is to apply that to claiming the world’s oldest international sporting trophy – originally awarded by the Royal Yacht Squadron for a race around the Isle of Wight, won by the schooner America.
“It’s been 166 years,” he says. “There is this fantastic trophy, produced by [London silversmiths] Garrard & Co, commissioned by Queen Victoria, and our sailing nation has never won the bloody thing. It really makes you think: ‘Shit!’
“It’s also an opportunity for me. What racing does for you in terms of the tempo, the adrenaline, the focus, it is like going to war. And it’s something you miss.”
Ainslie has put his team together with the aim of making America’s Cup history. He personally got in touch with Whitmarsh.
“I’ve brought a complete ignorance of sailing,” says Whitmarsh. “I’m not a sailor. [But what I do have is] the experience of being in a team looking for all these marginal gains [through] teamwork, processes, having a system that’s looking for incremental improvements. We all want the eureka breakthrough that’s going to give us the victory, but actually, in these well-developed technical sports, it’s about incremental gains. Unless you develop with the discipline, the focus, the rigour, the analysis tools that find and grab those small increments, then you don’t see them, you don’t harness them.
“In F1, generally the quickest car wins. In America’s Cup, generally the quickest boat wins. There is a lot of technology in this. But you still have to take into account the psychology of these athletes, who have to get hold of these bits of technology and deliver the performance from them.”
Broadly, the technology that Ainslie will take charge of in Bermuda is a state-ofthe- art catamaran with a solid aeroplane wing-like sail and sexy ‘go-faster’ hydrofoils to provide lift and speed. It is, like all his boats, called Rita. Why so?
“I was a teenager and I was at an event with my parents,” Ainslie, who will turn 40 this weekend, explains. “We were in Tenerife, and my mum came across a local church whose patron saint was St Rita. She made a little prayer... The event went really well, so she said: ‘St Rita must be a lucky charm for you.’ This boat must be Rita number 25 or something. My mum is very proud of it. I’d hate to change the name – it would upset her greatly, I’m sure.”
Mrs Ainslie can already be rightly proud of her son. His Olympic successes aside, he has already lifted the America’s Cup – with the USA’s Team Oracle in 2013. He is also a knight of the British Empire.
“I never make anyone call me ‘Sir’,” says Ainslie. “I always felt like it would be a good comeback at some point, if someone was being a little bit rude. It always seems like a bit of an age thing as well, doesn’t it? A gentleman in his 70s. You’d call him ‘sir’ out of respect.”
Sport is fortunate enough to be sat just behind Ainslie on his team’s catamaran in one of the practice races in Fukuoka. The ruthlessly orchestrated blur of co-ordinated effort from the crew is a sight to behold, the boats gunning along separated only by a matter of inches in some cases.
Among others to have joined Ainslie on board at different times are actor Mark Ruffalo, Welsh rugby international Leigh Halfpenny and All Black great Dan Carter. Is there an extent to which Ainslie’s team, like New Zealand rugby, encourages the guiding principle of being a ‘good bugger’?
“One of the first guys I employed was Jono [Macbeth], our sailing team manager,” says Ainslie. “He’s actually a Kiwi, funnily enough. He’s very much of that ilk: great integrity, strength of personality. We took our time picking the guys – we wanted the right skill set and personality. That’s important. Not just the sailing team, but everyone – the way people behave.”
Another man on Ainslie’s team with the right credentials is Giles Scott, winner of the Finn class gold medal in Rio last summer.
“It was the first time in 24 years I’ve actually watched the Olympics on TV,” says Ainslie. “Giles’ win was fully deserved. It was a proud moment for all of us.”
He is keen to stress, however, that his team is not built on “the billionaire model”: going out with an open cheque book and signing the best talent, throwing them together and expecting it to work. This is a team of talented grinders, not galacticos.
Sailors, not monsters
Ainslie identifies the New Zealand and Japan teams as his team’s biggest threat to their qualifying to face the holders for the cup in Bermuda. Whitmarsh lays down the task facing them: “Winning it is difficult. Winning it first time is extraordinarily difficult. If we can do that first time out, we will make a piece of history.”
As well as being a winner, Whitmarsh describes Ainslie as “unusually smart and humble. He has the confidence of being a winner, but he has that rare humility and intelligence mixed with it…
“I think humility comes easier because sailing, even at the highest level, does not attract the scrutiny or acclaim that other sports do. Having been involved in the creation of some young world champions in F1, in fairness to them, it’s pretty difficult to remain normal and humble because they get elevated to such an extent. By the time they’re in their early 20s, they’re millionaires living in Monaco, with the whole world bowing down to them. How can they possibly grow up in that circumstance and have the balance and humility that you’d like them to have?
“We’ve made monsters in F1. Sailors don’t get that attention, but that also has to be an inherent part of the personality. Ben is very generous like that, very humble.”
Ainslie also has complete conviction. “Our goal is absolutely to win,” he says. “It’s been great to set up a completely new team and take on the likes of Oracle and New Zealand. These teams that have been around for decades. And to actually be beating them, to stay on top of them in the World Series, is a huge achievement.”
If the Land Rover BAR team are successful, Whitmarsh says it could be a breakthrough moment for sailing in the UK. “This is a fast, dynamic, televisual sport. It has never been that before. You’ve got all this great history, but let’s be honest: it was never fast enough, short enough, close enough to shore, dynamic enough and it didn’t have the on-screen graphics that you and I can understand. Because this is an inherently bewildering sport in which two boats round a marker and go off in opposite directions, and they’re racing each other. You think: ‘Hold on, what’s going on here?’ But now it’s televisual, I think it’ll be huge.
“If we win this, I think it’s bigger than the Bradley Wiggins [Tour de Francewinning] moment. It’s the oldest sporting trophy in the world – 166 years, it started in the Solent, we challenged the world. And we’ve never won the bloody thing.”
Zenith is the official timing partner of Team BAR Land Rover. Visit zenith-watches.com