America’s Cup: a Kiwi perspective

First, congratulations to Oracle. After being 8:1 down, they pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in sport, but it is interesting to see what actually happened. How did they get so far behind, and why did Team New Zealand (TNZ) not finish them off? For TNZ did have their chances.

From what I can make out, there were several factors. The first was a change of critical crew, and in particular getting Ainslie on board as tactician. What is remarkable about the USA boat was that it only started winning when there was only one person from the USA on board. There was nothing TNZ could do about that. The second was a major change of the critical parts of the boat design. A triumph for American technology? Well, actually, not necessarily. Many of the changes apparently came from a small boat building enterprise in Warkworth, which happens to be in New Zealand, and is owned by Larry Ellison. It appears that what they gave was effectively the same sort of boat foils, etc., that TNZ had. How did they design that so fast? We do not know, but it may well be that information leaked out from the TNZ designers. Collaboration is being promoted in New Zealand by so-called experts in developing technology, and here it was not an advantage to New Zealand.

There was a further technology advantage to Oracle. It appears from reports that they have an automated means of foil adjustments, driven by an electric motor. The New Zealand reading of the rules prohibited that, but the rules committee permitted it. That was unfortunate, and by the time TNZ found out, when it was deployed half-way through, it was too late for TNZ to design one. What that did was to permit the boat to turn corners faster, and in a race that comprises zig-zagging, that is a huge advantage. What is also notable is that Oracle did not start with it, so I suspect they thought it was against the rules too, but only applied when the situation demanded it. Losing was not an option! The Oracle money meant that Oracle could pursue all sorts of options, just in case.

TNZ were also a little unlucky. For the Oracle crew to go through that many races without making a mistake may have seemed to be something outstanding, but they did make a huge clanger that gave TNZ one race, except it was cancelled because it could not be completed in the time limit, the time limit apparently having been set for TV convenience. Of course both sides knew the time limit before the series started, and maybe TNZ are now kicking themselves for not trying to get it extended earlier.

However, TNZ did have chances when 8:1 up, so what went wrong? The first thing was, they failed to nail it as soon as possible. For some reason, they felt they had it in the bag, and began to relax. That is strategically disastrous. They nearly lost the boat when half the crew thought they were turning and the other half did not. They then started changing tacticians, to “give the new guys experience”. Bad mistake; the new guys had no experience, and worse, by changing them, they were not learning. Then they started making further mistakes, without realizing that their opposition were improving rapidly. Some might be difficult to see. One involved a start: they did something Spithill never saw coming, and it could have been the making of the critical win. The reason it was a mistake was they pulled it off on a race where the wind speed was almost too high, and the race was cancelled effectively at the start gate, and this potential one-off race-winning tactic was exposed. The tactic was great, but the strategy awful, because they wasted a potential race winner on a cancelled race, and that would not work twice.

Once it became apparent that the opposition boat was as fast, they had to stop making mistakes, and the mistakes kept coming. The third-last race was a disastrous start, and the second-last race there was a dreadful extra jibe to avoid Oracle, when they had right of way. Whether it would have made any difference at this late stage is another matter, but it is always right to take whatever rights you have. In the last race, they did not make any, but it did not matter because by now Oracle was faster.

So, what do we learn from that? First, the idea that “the good guys always win” belongs in fiction. In thrillers, the good guys usually win because the writer is on their side. (In my novels, I try to make the winners those that do things better.) The problem with that attitude in real life is that both sides think they are the good guys, there is no writer to bring about the desired end, and the winners are the ones that make the fewest mistakes and bring the most appropriate equipment to the scene. For the second half of the America’s Cup racing that was the Oracle crew, so congratulations.

There is one more thing to learn. Oracle redesigned its boat, and kept a huge technology advantage in terms of computer software, and may have made it almost impossible for someone else to beat them. Given the cost of it, has Larry Ellison priced the event so high that next time nobody will turn up?