After a bizarre race Team New Zealand leads Luna Rossa 5-3

Defender Team New Zealand unleashed its speed to achieve the first pass of the 36th America’s Cup match, then came from a long way back in a bizarre eighth race to beat Italian challenger Luna Rossa twice Monday and take a 5-3 lead in the first-to-seven wins series.

If Team New Zealand retains the Cup — it can do so if it wins both races Tuesday — it will be because of the unprecedented events of the second of Monday’s two races when it turned what seemed likely to be a crushing defeat into an almost incomprehensible victory.

Luna Rossa held an early lead in a race which began conventionally, defending that advantage to round the first mark with a 16-second lead. The race at Auckland, New Zealand then became extraordinary — perhaps one of the most extraordinary in all of the Cup’s 170-year history.

Team New Zealand looked likely to roll Luna Rossa on the first downwind but, as the boats came level, gybed away in a failing breeze. Its race boat, Te Rehutai, dropped off its foils and was left almost stationery in the middle of the course while Luna Rossa sailed away to four-minute lead.

The race seemed over and the deadlock that has existed throughout the match, as each team has won one race on the first three days, seemed likely to continue.

But, incredibly, after rounding the second mark Luna Rossa sailed into a wind hole near the top of the course, fell off the foils and was left wallowing and powerless. Team New Zealand rose up on its foils again and wore down the massive deficit.

Always on the point of stalling, Te Rehutai managed to round the top mark and to turn a deficit of 4 minutes and 8 seconds at one mark to a lead of 4:27 at the next.

The race was shorted to five legs and New Zealand managed to finish inside the time limit for the race, to win by 3 minutes, 55 seconds.

“What a race,” New Zealand flight controller Blair Tuke said. “It’s one to keep.

“It was a pretty unreal fightback. We obviously made an error gybing right behind them on the first downwind and fell off the foils (but) we got it up reasonable quickly and sailed a great race from there.”

For Luna Rossa, the events of the Monday were demoralizing after a close tussle on the first three days of the series.

“It was pretty tough conditions,” Luna Rossa co-helmsman Jimmy Spithill said. “We were sailing a pretty good race. Unfortunately we just came off the foils and really got stuck at the top mark for some time, just trying to find enough pressure to get back up on the foils.

“We know we can win races. We’ve been in some tough situations before and the guys will keep their heads up.”

Team New Zealand’s rumoured speed hadn’t been seen in the first six races when the teams traded wins, splitting two races on each of the first three sailing days when there were light winds and no chances of overtaking.

The defender showed an extra turn of speed Monday, coming from behind for the first time in the series to win the first race of the day by 58 seconds.

“It was good to actually get a pass finally,” New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling said. “Then to extend as we did after the pass was pleasing as well.”

Luna Rossa comfortably won the start of race seven which, in keeping with the trend of the series, should have meant it won the race. It rounded the first mark 8 seconds ahead and sailed a strong first downwind to be 10 seconds ahead at the second gate.

But it was already apparent from the data coming off the boats Team New Zealand was sailing faster.

The race completely changed at the second mark when Luna Rossa rounded and headed to the left and Team New Zealand tacked and bore away to the right. The Italians chose not to cover, gave the Kiwis some separation for the the first time and Team New Zealand turned a match race into a drag race.

When it came back on port, Team New Zealand couldn’t quite cross and Luna Rossa tacked away. But Team New Zealand was much faster and simply sailed on in the first passing maneuver of the series.

By the top mark Team New Zealand was already 19 seconds in front and their lead blew out as the race continued; to 27 seconds at the fourth mark and 40 seconds at the fifth. The course was skewed as the wind moved left and the last leg was a straight run to the finish.

“We tried to keep them behind us but obviously it wasn’t a success,” Luna Rossa com-helmsman Franceso Bruni said. “We have seen the first pass and unfortunately it was against us.”

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