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Alinghi brings America's Cup to Europe

The syndicate's head, Ernesto Bertarelli, celebrates the historic victory with the Alinghi team Keystone

The Swiss syndicate, Alinghi, has become the first European team to win the 152-year-old America’s Cup.

This content was published on March 2, 2003 - 03:19

The team, bankrolled by biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, easily defeated the defender, Team New Zealand, 5-0.

In the fifth race of the best-of-nine series the Alinghi team, led by the New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts, swept past the two-time defending champion, winning by 45 seconds.

"I'm immensely proud of what we've achieved. What you have to realise is that two and a half years ago, there was nothing," Coutts said after the race.

"I don't think the design team have been given enough credit - this boat is so different from most of the other boats in this competition," he added.

Fourth country

After the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Switzerland is now the fourth country to win the trophy.

After a succession of postponements due to the weather, conditions were ideal on the waters of the Hauraki Gulf off the coast of Auckland.

The Alinghi team's faultless start put them in a leading position, which they managed to keep from start to finish in the six-leg, 18.5 nautical mile course.

After crossing the finishing line the jubilant crew embraced each other and sprayed champagne.

"I am so proud of our team - we have 14 nationalities from all over the world. There is good everywhere - as long as you pick the best, it happens," Bertarelli told New Zealand television.

Best skipper

Coutts, who took the cup from the country he brought it to in 1995, has once again proven that he is one of the best skippers in the world by winning 14 America’s Cup races in a row.

Bertarelli did not waste any time praising the abilities of New Zealand's sailors.

“I think New Zealand should be proud of these sailors – the country has produced sailors who have won 15 America’s Cup races in a row and are still undefeated,” he said.

Shortly after the Alinghi's historic victory the Swiss team hoisted a flag that showed the America's Cup sitting on the top of the Matterhorn - a reference to one of Bertarelli's comments, saying "victory would put Switzerland at the top of the world and the Cup at the top of the Matterhorn".

Swiss joy

The mood was jubilant back in Switzerland.

Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, was among the first to praise the team's victory.

Couchepin and sports minister, Samuel Schmid, telephoned Bertarelli shortly after the race to offer their congratulations.

Both ministers emphasised the importance of the historic win for Switzerland.

"Switzerland can surprise people," said Couchepin in an interview with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

The Federal Institute of Technology, which helped to design the boat, also offered its congratulations.

"Alinghi is a fantastic, human adventure and an excellent learning experience for all our students and employees," said vice president, Stefan Catsicas.

Ace up the sleeve

Observers said Alinghi had two aces up its sleeve before the start of the competition.

One was the yacht, which had been fully tested under race conditions during the challenger series of the Louis Vuitton Cup. The other was the experience of its crew, which took on a young New Zealand team.

Coutts is a familiar face for New Zealand sailing fans, who successfully defended the America's Cup in 2000 before joining the Swiss syndicate in a multimillion-franc deal.

Coutts and other Kiwi sailors who joined the Swiss bid shortly afterwards have since been branded traitors by some sections of the New Zealand population and media. Alinghi crewmembers' families were even threatened via anonymous letters.

Nationalist

The latest America's Cup had distinctly nationalist overtones in New Zealand, with the media reinforcing the Kiwi image of the defender. Alinghi, on the other hand, had a much more international flavour, with very few Swiss on board the yacht during the races.

Bertarelli chose to hire the best sailors in the world to make his bid successful, although this led to accusations of poaching Coutts from the New Zealand team.

The skipper hit back, saying he was unable to come to an agreement with the management of Team New Zealand over the terms of a new contract.

Foreign sailors and skippers have been hired for Cup racing over the years, and there is nothing against it in the rules.

Team New Zealand also has a few foreigners among its contingent, including Frenchman Pace and the odd Australian.

One of the biggest critics of foreign sailors being hired has been merchant banker Michael Fay.

Fay helped bankrolled previous America's Cup campaigns for New Zealand, but he does his business nowadays no longer in Auckland, but in Geneva, Switzerland.

Technology

Alinghi does have a strong Swiss element despite the criticism. Much of the technology onboard was developed in Switzerland, especially at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and the syndicate's two yachts were built in a landlocked boatyard above Vevey, canton Vaud.

With the Cup now on it way back to Europe, the big question is: where will the Swiss defend their prize?

The rules governing the America's Cup say the competition is an ocean regatta. The Geneva sailing club will obviously have a hard time convincing anyone Lake Geneva is a seaside venue.

The economic potential of such an event is already attracting interested parties all around the Mediterranean.

Barcelona has dropped strong hints it wouldn't mind hosting the lucrative Cup, while Sète and Marseilles in the south of France have all but put in formal bids.

The battle to host the competition for the Auld Mug promises to be entertaining. Ernesto Bertarelli, like any astute businessman, can be expected to milk it for all it's worth.

swissinfo, Scott Capper and Billi Bierling

Key facts

Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli invested $70 million (SFr96 million) in his bid to win the 2003 America's Cup.
The Alinghi team contains some of the biggest names in sailing, including top New Zealand sailor, Russell Coutts.
Bertarelli heads the Swiss biotech group Serono, which he took over from his father in 1996.
He began sailing at the age of seven on Lake Geneva.

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