New Zealand emerge victorious as Italy's rising stars make their mark
The America's Cup holders emerged as worthy winners of the 37th edition's preliminary regatta in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia but it's the sensational young Italian helming duo that has stolen the limelight
After a sharp exit from Jeddah after the end of racing on Saturday at the second preliminary regatta of the 37th America’s Cup I spent much of my two Emirates Airlines overnight flights back to Barcelona reflecting on the final day of action – an exciting day that featured thrilling fleet races and a compellingly closely fought match race finale.
As a Cup Insider reader you have probably already watched the excellent coverage of the racing – either live or on repeat – but if you haven’t then I encourage you to do so below.
America’s Cup holders Emirates Team New Zealand emerged as worthy winners of the event having topped the results table at the end of the six fleet races before they clinically neutralised their Italian opponents, the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli team, in the single match race final.
I am not expecting much kudos for correctly predicting the Kiwis would come out on top and I understand fully that I get double minus points for my picks for second and third – INEOS Britannia and NYYC American Magic – failing to make the podium.
What I – and most other commentators – failed to tune into was the the fire in bellies of the Italian team who surprised everyone with a late decision to put two junior sailors – 31-year old Ruggero Tita and Marco Gradoni (19) - at the wheels of their AC40 for the Red Sea event.
While the full reasons behind the move have not been revealed, it did free up the team’s ‘grown up’ helming pair of Francesco Bruni and Jimmy Spithill to remain back at the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli base in Cagliari, Sardinia to cram in two more days of testing and development aboard the Italian’s LEQ12 test boat.
Given Bruni and Spithill’s absence, it would be easy to conceive that Tita and Gradoni were being subbed in simply to make up the numbers at an event the team was contractually obliged to take part in.
Well, if that was the case then clearly nobody told the two young Italians, who seized with both pairs of hands this once in a career opportunity to prove their worth to the team and demonstrate their talent to the world.
The Luna Rossa management wisely didn’t go as far as fielding a full youth team, choosing instead to back their young guns up with two experienced trimmers in the form of Vittorio Bissaro and Umberto Molineris, whose silky and dependable boat handling skills enabled Tita and Gradoni’s natural racing talent to shine through.
The Italian crew took a couple of races to fully warm up but laid down a marker at the end of day one with a comprehensive race win – the first of three bullets on the 3,4,1,1,2,4,1,6 fleet racing scoreline that earned them a place in the final winner-takes-all match race against the America’s Cup holders Emirates Team New Zealand.
Although there is no doubting Gradoni and Tita’s instinct and ability – the former was the first Optimist sailor to win three successive world championship titles, and the latter won Nacra 17 gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – surely nobody could have expected them to perform so well against the five vastly more experienced America’s Cup squads?
Well apparently, not quite ‘nobody’.
During the event I caught up with Luna Rossa’s port-side trimmer Vittorio Bissaro to get his insight into the team’s preparation for the Jeddah event.
He began by telling me that, despite having trained for just 10 days in Jeddah prior to the event, the Italian crew had been confident going into the regatta and said prior to the series they ‘had a good feeling and were looking forward to going out racing’.
When I asked him to give me his assessment of Tita and Gradoni and to contrast it with Spithill and Bruni, Bissaro said there were plenty of similarities in helming style.
“I would say Jimmy is very similar to Ruggero – very calm and very relaxed – and then Cecco [Bruni] is more Italian and similar to Marco. Somehow they share the same approach and ironically Ruggero and Marco are on the same side of the boat as Jimmy and Cecco.”
“There is a lot of talent between them. Marco is younger with a lot of passion. He talks a lot and he is very instinctive. Ruggero is not new to this level. He won a gold medal in Tokyo in the Nacra 17 and I think he is probably the most talented Olympic foiling sailor in the world right now.
“I think the two of them really create a good mix and it is great to be sailing with them.
“Going into this regatta we were a work in progress,” Bissaro summarised. “I think our strength is that we have very little [in the way of a] fixed plan and there is a lot of proactiveness from everyone. I think that is why things have gone so well.”
During the pre-start period of the final match race the Kiwis were able to force Luna Rossa into a late approach to the start line, but then had to work hard to fend off sustained attack from them – particularly upwind – over the next five windward / leeward legs.
The Italian challenge ended with a spectacular high speed nosedive on the exit from the starboard windward gate at the start of the final downwind leg that brought the boat to a shuddering halt and filled the cockpits to the brim.
It was a cruel ending to the team’s sensational regatta performance and both helmsmen looked devastated not to have had one final tilt at chasing the Kiwis down before the finish line.
Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman Nathan Outteridge was full of praise for the young Italian helmsmen.
“I think he [Gradoni] is almost half my age – and I didn’t think I was that old – but he has done a great job. The confidence they have sailing that boat.
“They are one of the crews that when you look around the course [you can see] they are pushing it – the ride height, the rudder immersion, the speed they are pushing the speed everywhere they go. They are going to have a big future in this sport for sure.”
‘A big future’ for this talented and exciting young duo does seem assured and although the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli seniors Spithill and Bruni are unlikely to be feeling their positions are under threat at this stage, the emergence of two such talented helmsmen does perhaps speak volumes for the depth of talent the Italian team has managed to cultivate in Cagliari.
The feeling I got from both Tita and Gradoni was that they were simply happy to have been able to serve their team well in Saudi Arabia. That said, as Luna Rossa’s focus switches back fully to testing and development over the coming months to feed into the ongoing construction of their new AC75 – expected to be launched next spring – it will be interesting to see how much we see of these two exciting young talents in the helming role.
Cup Insider is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.