Ben Ainslie: The future of sailing looks faster, eco-focused and more diverse
March 1, 2022
Sir Ben Ainslie reports on his America’s Cup and SailGP plans and predicts how Formula One insights will help INEOS Britannia’s bid for victory.
It’s hard to keep track of what’s happened since my last update for BOAT International, but needless to say 2021 was a hell of a year for all of us – in many ways.
When I signed off last April, we were just off the back of New Zealand’s defence of the America’s Cup. As Challenger of Record, we had the responsibility of agreeing the protocol and class rule for the next edition of the Cup, AC37. The deadline for announcing the protocol was November 2021 and you’d be forgiven for thinking that eight months would be ample time to get our heads together with the Kiwis to agree a pathway. The reality was, while we agreed on so many key areas there were inevitably a few points where competitive instinct and fairness caused something of a stalemate. We finally agreed on the document at the eleventh hour, but it’s a protocol and set of rules that both teams are proud to stand by.
I take my hat off to Grant Dalton and Team New Zealand for their open and direct approach to finding an agreement. It wasn’t straightforward but the strength of our relationship enabled us to find a compromise when we could have so easily derailed the whole deal. The protocol is certainly bold and progressive. For those that don’t follow the Cup that closely, the standout elements are the first outright Women’s America’s Cup, the return of the Youth America’s Cup (both of which will be sailed in a new AC40 foiling monohull), the retention of the AC75 class for the actual America’s Cup (the venue and dates will be announced on 31 March) and the development of hydrogen-powered foiling chase boats.
Providing diversity and a pathway programme is an absolute no-brainer for this area of the sport. The positive impact for the hydrogen-powered foiling chase boats is clearly also an area where our sport can, and should, do more, and it’s exciting to see new technologies coming to the fore thanks to intellectual property developed via the America’s Cup.
The new Britannia
In October we relaunched our America’s Cup team as INEOS Britannia. We are clearly proud of our maritime heritage in the UK and Britannia has such an iconic history that we would love to build on. The support of Sir Jim Ratcliffe and the team at INEOS has been incredible, and that shared desire to bring the Cup back to British waters has pulled us closer to our friends at Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team. INEOS is clearly the link between our two teams and an enhanced technical partnership was an obvious step to take as we strive to make that jump in technical performance to take on the Kiwis.
We now share office space at their main site in Brackley and it has been fascinating to watch the F1 team at work. Key members of the team include Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team and INEOS Britannia chief technical officer James Allison, and Geoffrey Willis from Mercedes-AMG F1 Applied Science, who will be dedicated to INEOS Britannia as technical director. Willis is no stranger to the Cup, having previously worked on Peter de Savary’s Blue Arrow Challenge.
The level of resource Formula One can bring to an area is ten times that of a normal America’s Cup team. The trick for us will be harnessing that firepower and focusing it on the areas of performance that will deliver gains. We have a strategy in place, which ideally we won’t shift from (but you can never say never in this game!); after that, the rest is down to us as a team to execute and deliver on the day. Watch this space.
Hopefully we will see more new teams to this edition, perhaps Stars & Stripes from the US or a completely new outfit that comes out of nowhere. It would be good to see at least six teams in this next cycle, and whoever comes out on top needs to strive to find ways to make this incredible sporting contest more inclusive.
The other main area of focus for the team is SailGP. We first took part in February 2020 and were instantly drawn to the league’s competitive and commercial potential. So much so that, together with RC44 World Champion and long-term associate Chris Bake, we recently took ownership of the GBR franchise. Alongside its commercial potential, SailGPs approach and dedication to sustainability really sets it apart and it is already setting an example for other professional sports to match. As with the America’s Cup, it’s refreshing to see our sport really taking a strong and positive stance on this important issue.
The competitive side of SailGP is clearly a massive draw to all of us who compete. Sadly, this season has been one of many expensive mistakes for our team. We clearly have the capability to win events and be a strong challenger but at key moments we have had some quite spectacular wipeouts, crashes and controversial incidents. Unfortunately, in sport, as in life, you go through periods where you feel like you can’t catch a break and nothing is working your way. The trick is to learn from the mistakes and use the pain and disappointment as motivation to work harder and come back stronger. That’s what we will do.