The opening skirmishes in the battle for the America’s Cup are being fought this week off the southern French coast.
The Marseille regatta is the first of nine events to decide the seedings for who will challenge Switzerland’s Team Alinghi for sailing’s oldest prize in 2007.
The cup defenders, as is their right, have devised the new competition format for the 32nd America’s Cup, which will be fought off the coast of Valencia, Spain.
It was drawn up by AC Management (ACM), the organisation established by Alinghi-owner Ernesto Bertarelli to organise the defence of the trophy.
Alinghi became the first European winners to lift the Auld Mug in 152 years when the Swiss whitewashed Team New Zealand off the Auckland coast in March last year.
The first of the nine regattas got underway on Saturday, with teams from the United States, France, South Africa, New Zealand and Switzerland.
As the cup defenders, the Swiss are not competing for points, merely for match practice.
They are racing without their America’s Cup-winning skipper Russell Coutts, who was sacked in July following “repeated violations of his duties”.
“Obviously, it’s a major distraction for us,” said Jochen Schuemann, head of Alinghi’s sailing team, ahead of the Marseille regatta. “As the best sailor in the current America’s Cup world, it’s a major loss for our team.”
Louis Vuitton Cup
For the challengers, the regattas will help determine the seedings for the final Louis Vuitton Cup elimination series in 2007.
“It’s a new era,” said Chris Dickson, skipper of BMW Oracle Racing. “This is the first time in the recent history of the America’s Cup that teams have had the opportunity to check… where we are in relation to each other.”
While the first act of the Louis Vuitton Cup is taking place in Marseille, future regattas are planned for Italy, Spain and other countries over the next three years.
And for the first time in the history of the Louis Vuitton Cup – the competition which decides who will challenge the Swiss in 2007 – teams are fleet racing as well as competing in head-to-head matches.
The new format is a major break with the past, when traditionally the Louis Vuitton Cup and the America’s Cup ran back-to-back over the same course.
ACM says the new competition is designed to give the America’s Cup greater prominence, make it more spectacular and easier to understand.
“The new format greatly increases the number of spectators and gives the smaller challengers enormous visibility, when in the past, after three years’ work and expenditure, they only spent a month in the media spotlight,” said ACM spokesman Marcus Hutchinson.
Testing their mettle
Dickson agrees, saying it gives the teams plenty of races to test their mettle against each other.
“Having this action going on is essential,” said Dickson. “To be competing every three to four years doesn’t make sense. Doing five, six, seven regattas a year is what we need to be doing.
“We’re a sporting team, and sporting teams need to compete.”
To date, only six teams have signed up for the Louis Vuitton Cup against the ten that raced in New Zealand.
Hutchinson said there was still time for boats from Sweden, Britain and Germany to enter the race. The final deadline for official entries is April 29, 2005.
The main difficulty for challengers appears to be raising the estimated minimum budget of between €20-30 million (SFr30-46 million).
swissinfo with agencies
The Louis Vuitton Cup decides who will challenge Alinghi for the America’s Cup.
Marseille lost to Valencia in the race to host the final in 2007.
Six teams from the US, Italy, France, South Africa and New Zealand have already entered the race.
In 2003 Switzerland became the first European – and landlocked – country to win the America’s Cup.