SailGP’s sprint for $1 million could be race of attrition

After a week of mayhem on lively San Francisco Bay, it’s not unrealistic to think that SailGP’s $1 million, winner-take-all Season 2 championship will go to the last F50 catamaran remaining in one piece.

It’s been that kind of season for tech tycoon Larry Ellison’s globe-trotting league, which has seen crashes and capsizes galore among the world’s most accomplished skippers.

Defending champion Tom Slingsby of Team Australia and his closest pursuer, fellow Aussie and former America’s Cup crewmate Jimmy Spithill of Team USA, both capsized their $7 million foiling catamarans during training for the Mubadala United States Grand Prix. The regatta starts Saturday and will culminate Sunday with the top three crews racing around the course at near freeway speeds for the $1 million, winner-take-all prize.

Slingsby and Spithill have qualified for the podium race. A third Aussie skipper, Nathan Outteridge of Team Japan, has the best chance of earning the third spot in the $1 million podium race, if he can come through the preceding five fleet races in one piece and keep ahead of his closest pursuer, Team Spain, in the standings.

Slingsby knows what it’s like to win sailing’s biggest purse and Outteridge knows what it’s like to have that much money slip away. Slingsby beat Outteridge for the inaugural season championship in 2019. Spithill, a two-time America’s Cup champion, would like to get his hands on a check that big.

Spithill’s crew has qualified for the podium race despite a season filled with broken equipment and broken bones. The blue U.S. boat rolled over Monday when a button stuck and the wing sail — decorated with an image of the Statue of Liberty — didn’t pop over while the crew was attempting a foiling tack at 40 mph. There were no injuries and just minimal damage.

Slingsby wasn’t as lucky. Team Australia capsized its boat, known as the Flying Roo for the yellow kangaroo on its wing sail, at the end of practice Thursday. There were no injuries but the wing sail, which looks and performs like a jetliner’s wing, sustained major damage and will require a big rebuild.

Spithill’s crew has been tested more than any other team “but the job’s not done,” the skipper said Friday. “Yes we’re fortunate enough to have qualified for the final, but as Tom and his boys showed yesterday, anything can happen very, very quickly. If that had happened on Sunday, Tom wouldn’t be in the race, in the final for the $1 million. That’s the balance we have to play with.”

Spithill said the American and Aussie crews will want to push hard and use the fleet races to prepare for the final race. But, he added, “If we cross the line or something happens, that’s it. It could be over. It’s a very, very tight line we have to walk going into Sunday.”

Team USA was knocked out of the season-opening regatta in Bermuda after its cat was damaged in a collision with Team Japan and then capsized. The Americans were leading the podium race in Italy before hitting a submerged object and being forced to retire. Wing trimmer Paul Campbell-James broke his right leg when he and Spithill were thrown from the cockpit when the boat nearly capsized during practice before the Denmark regatta.

The carnage wasn’t limited to the American team. British sailing star Ben Ainslie inexplicably smashed his catamaran into Outteridge’s catamaran during the Sydney regatta, ripping the bow off the starboard hull of the Japanese boat. Ainslie let Team Japan use his boat to complete the regatta.

Spithill considers Team USA to be an underdog against both Slingsby and Outteridge, who have the most experience in the F50s.

That drew a chuckle from Slingsby, an Olympic gold medalist and former America’s Cup champion.

“I kind of feel like we need a violin playing every time he tells us how hard done by he is,” Slingsby said.

“I’d prefer to be in the position of favorite,” Slingsby said. “The reason we’re favored is because we’ve proven we can perform under pressure time and time again. I wouldn’t trade our position for anyone else’s.”

Earlier in the week, Spithill said: “As we’ve seen, sometimes it’s good to be the underdog in San Francisco.”

He was referring to the 2013 America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay, when he steered Oracle Team USA out of an 8-1 hole against Emirates Team New Zealand by winning the final eight races for one of the biggest comebacks in sports. Slingsby was Oracle Team USA’s strategist.

Ellison and New Zealander Russell Coutts, a five-time America’s Cup winner, founded SailGP after their two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA was routed by Emirates Team New Zealand in the 2017 America’s Cup.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson

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