When the 2016 52 Super Series answers the start guns on the renowned waters off Scarlino, Tuscany on Wednesday, the 11 teams competing know only too well how important it is to make the best possible opening.
The season-long championship spans five regattas between now and the conclusion mid-October in Cascais, Portugal and none want to find themselves rueing silly mistakes and cheap points given away lightly at the outset of the championship. In fact the old cliché that “you can’t win the circuit on the first day but you can sure as hell lose it” holds equal currency all the way through the 52 Super Series fleet.
Recall that the battle for the third step on the 2015 podium went down to single points, small losses and gains made here and there over the 46-race season. There were just ten points separating seventh from third overall, three points of difference between third and fourth and one point between fourth and fifth. Crews are extremely conscious that every place gained or given away in these first days is every bit as important as those mid-season and late in the year when the hierarchy has more shape and form.
Such is the unique, unrelenting pressure of the 52 Super Series championship where every race counts and there are no discards.
The universal consensus through the fleet is that the standard has never been higher and the racing has never been closer. And the pre-season preparation and training has been more intense than ever, including a formative week in March in Valencia as well as Gaastra Palma Vela two weeks ago which featured no fewer than nine boats of the 11 which will race here.
And launching right back into that high octane battle for the podium is Niklas Zennström’s Rán Racing. The crew that won the opening regatta of last season, Valencia, – one of the only two events they contested in 2015 – served notice of their potential when they won Tuesday’s practice race by a few metres.
Owner-driver Zennström is unequivocal in his belief that they can win in Scarlino:
“Of course we can win here. Last year we won the practice race in Valencia and won the regatta and so we have done the same here and we look forward to carrying on that tradition. With the 52 Super Series, it’s about not having the shockers, the big scores, and just staying consistent. We have a bit of a learning curve being back on the boat, back racing in the fleet but the more hours we have on the boat the better we are getting.”
If the practice race today added a final measure of confidence to the Rán preparations, the Quantum Racing result, sixth, piqued Quantum Racing’s Terry Hutchinson.
He felt their performance highlighted how much the benchmark team which has twice won the 52 Super Series has to improve, despite their winning the Gaastra Palma Vela dress rehearsal regatta two weeks ago.
“As a team and evaluating my own performance Palma Vela was a misleading regatta. I feel we have a lot of gain right in front of us. We have a lot of room to grow as a team and I have to get my head back around sailing these boats really well, like the comms and coordination with Ed (Baird, skipper-helm). And so the positive side is there is a lot of improvement to come in front of us. The negative side is you feel it. The teams around us have benefited from the extra five or six days they had in Valencia, the guys around us have done a lot of sailing already and that is noticeable on the water. We have to be very methodical, very pragmatic and keep things simple.”
If the 2015 champions Azzurra had an edge last year then there has been no clear, consistent evidence that it has carried on into 2016.
Many of the crews identified the specific technical advantage the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda team had and have replicated that into changes in their sail programme.
The common quest is for height and pace off the start line after the gun perhaps at the expense of downwind speed. Any team at all can win races. Probably any one of eight crews could win a regatta this season even if the smart money would still back Azzurra or Quantum Racing as the most likely challengers for the 2016 title.
There is so little between Harm Müller Spreer’s German flagged Platoon which has had a great pre-season build up, Takashi Okura’s Sled which squeezed into third in 2015, Andy Soriano’s Alegre, Ergin Imre’s Provezza and Vladimir Liubomirov’s Bronenosec, and the returning Rán that it is simply too close to call. This battle of owner-driver supremacy is mouth watering.
As Tony Rey, Provezza’s tactician notes:
“It’s going to be a spectacular season.
This is what we love to do. I mean, we grumble and complain on a bad day, but we love to do this. I think this season is going to be about turning those tens into sixes, and the nines into fives – that’s going to be the killer. It’s not about winning races, it’s not even about getting seconds. It’s about turning the bad ones into decent ones and then saving the points in the middle of this intense season.”
This is the first time the 52 Super Series has been to Scarlino, hosted by the brand new marina, but the bay is very well known to international sailors as it is beside Punta Ala which was home to Italy’s emblematic Luna Rossa team for eight years, because the winds are so reliable. And the TP52 class was here in its formative years in the Med in 2005 when there were five boats and in 2006 when there were 27.
After the practice race many of the organisers, staff and youngsters from the local sailing academy and club took to the adjacent beach to complete the first Beach Cleanup of the season, just one of the commitments the 52 Super Series and sustainability partners 11th Hour Racing have made to environmental responsibility this season.
Terry Hutchinson (USA), tactician, Quantum Racing (USA):
“The margin between last year’s best team, which was Azzurra, and whatever the worst team was, is a lot closer. I think you’re going to have to scrap and fight and claw for every single point. I mean you could look back on a regatta and think ‘boy we lost one boat down the last run’, that boat is going to be critical so you have to sail the thing right through until the finish.”
Vasco Vascotto (ITA), tactician, Azzurra (ITA/ARG):
“I feel like a kid on the first day at school. There are so many boats that can win races and can win the season. It is very tough and so many teams have made a big step forwards. We know that and we need to sail very well. We need to forget the little advantage we had last year and go sailing in a tough way.”
Francesco d’Angelis (ITA), coach, Bronenosec (RUS):
One of the beautiful things here is that the environment is so well preserved it is a nice place to go sailing and there is always wind. There are three main directions and each has its own features which are not easy to sort out. It is a great place to sail. It is a place where there are not usually big waves, tricky winds.”
Ross MacDonald (CAN), tactician, Sled (USA):
“We have gone in a slightly different direction with the sail design. We have looked at the upwind sails, we have put a little more attention to this. The whole game has moved forwards but we are looking for an easier boat to sail as well. The other things are small, rigging changes. The all important thing for us is the owner-driver trophy which we be big for us this year. I have been here a fair bit including some IMS boats, the Star worlds in the last century (1999) when we were second, one point short of first.”
Harm Müller Spreer (GER), owner-driver, Platoon (GER):
“It is so totally different to last season. Last season we were a new boat and a new team. This year we have made some small changes to the crew, we have new sails (Quantum) and the set-up is perfect. I am very happy. To see how the Quantum Racing guys work is great for us. They are totally open. We share all the information all the data.”
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