AINSLIE's America's Cup commitments mean he has not competed in the Finn since winning his fourth consecutive Gold Cup last year. New World Champion and World number one Jonas HOEGH-CHRISTENSEN (DEN) will be aiming to prove the class has moved on, as will fellow Brit Ed WRIGHT, who has enjoyed a fantastic season so far.
Meanwhile AYTON has switched to the helm since winning gold as crew for Shirley ROBERTSON (GBR) in 2004, and taken the other member of the gold medal winning British team, Sarah WEBB, with her. In the absence of ROBERTSON, who is on maternity leave, her new Yngling crew members Annie LUSH and Lucy MACGREGOR will be helmed by Paralympian Helena LUCAS (GBR).
MARTINEZ and FERNANDEZ returned from a stint on the Southern Ocean in the Volvo Ocean Race to enjoy a terrific start to the year with wins at the ISAF Grade 1 Semaine Olympique Française and the ISAF World Sailing Games. However, at the light wind dominated Worlds in France they finished a disappointing tenth, although they came back strongly to finish third at the Europeans in Great Britain last month.HAGARA and STEINACHER have had a relatively quiet year, switching to the Hobie Tiger for the World Sailing Games and only featuring in three ISAF Graded regattas with their Tornado World Ranking consequently falling down to 13. However the pair were the star turn at the recent European Championship in Germany, with their skills in the light winds to a fore as they built an big lead early on and hung on to claim victory.
The change of equipment in the windsurfing events has seen Athens gold medallist FRIDMAN ease himself back into the Olympic Classes circuit. The Israeli has only made two appereances at ISAF Graded events on the new RS:X board, and none at an ISAF Grade 1 regatta. Instead it is newly crowned European Champion Nick DEMPSEY (GBR) who has led the way on the new board this year.
MERRET also seemed to be making a slow start on the new equipment in her first RS:X event in Hyères, but a final race bullet offered signs of a turn around. Then overall victory at the ISAF Grade 1 Holland Regatta showed Olympic class through and through.
China's two previous Olympic sailing medals have both come in the Women's Windsurfer event and unsurprisingly the Women's RS:X fleet has already been hit by a big Chinese challenge. Amongst the 65 sailors on the Women's RS:X ISAF World Sailing Rankings, nine of them are Chinese, with Qiubin CHEN (CHN) the highest Ranked Chinese sailor in tenth place. Although the Chinese are yet to confirm who will fill their three slots in Qingdao, World Sailing Games Champion and ISAF Grade 1 Sail Melbourne winner CHEN looks a strong favourite to appear along with Athens silver medallist Jian YIN.
Another Chinese favourite is Laser Radial starlet Lijia XU, after she wrapped up victory at the recent Laser Radial Worlds in the USA. The 18 year old only stepped into the Radial for the first time at the Volvo Youth Sailing ISAF World Championship last year, where she took silver behind Paige RAILEY (USA), and has already scored podium finishes at both Melbourne and Hyères. Despite her victory at the Worlds, XU is by no means talking up her chances in the class. Even after her win she said of World number one RAILEY, 'She is still the best, and there are still some good things I need to learn from here. I'm just a beginner.'
With such a massive fleet assembled for Qingao, there are plenty of potential winners spread across the eleven events. The Australians have been performing well all season long, winning the King's Trophy at the World Sailing Games in Austria and also picking up a string of gold medals at major regattas throughout the year. Tom SLINGSBY (AUS) has picked up three ISAF Grade 1 titles in the Laser, although World number one Paul GOODISON (GBR) has been the form sailor over the past couple of months.
470 World Champions Nathan WILMOT and Malcolm PAGE (AUS) will also start amongst the favourites for gold. Australian Sailing Team Head Coach, Victor KOVALENKO commented before leaving for Qingdao, that the test event is, 'A great learning opportunity for us as we prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.' Adding, 'It's also important for all team members to learn the weather conditions which Qingdao has to offer well before the Olympic Games and to experience the Chinese culture first hand.'
US SAILING's Olympic Committee Chairman Dean BRENNER is approaching the regatta in a similar fashion. 'This event is a phenomenal opportunity to visit the venue and continue to prepare for the 2008 Games. It's also a great opportunity for our best athletes to gauge themselves against the best Olympic competition in the world.'
Strong challengers from the USA can be expected in the Laser Radial from RAILEY and World number two Anna TUNNICLIFFE (USA), as well as from Sally BARKOW, Carrie HOWE and Deb CAPOZZI (USA) in the Yngling.
Other favourites include the newly crowned Yngling World and European Champions and World number one crew Monica AZON, Sandra AZON and Graciela PISONERO (ESP). Meanwhile, World Champions Chris DRAPER and Simon HISCOCKS (GBR) and European Champions Stevie MORRISON and Ben RHODES (GBR) will form a formidable British challenge in the 49er fleet. And whilst 2005 ISAF Rolex World Sailors of the Year Fernando ECHAVARRI and Anton PAZ (ESP) have not been enjoying a great year in the Tornado, the pair proved last year they are a match for anyone when they find their form. In addition, all the number one crews from the ISAF World Sailing Rankings make an appearance with the exception of windsurfers Maxim OBEREMKO (UKR) and Olga MASLIVETS (UKR).
Everything is set for a terrific competition in Qingdao. The all star cast will assemble from 18-31 August, with the first day of racing on 21 August.