The 6th Louis Vuitton Cup begins tomorrow, 1 October, with two heavyweights squaring off in the first match on Course Juliet.
The pairings for Round Robin 1 were determined today at the first press conference of Louis Vuitton Cup 2002-2003. The teams will square off in Round 2 in similar fashion, just from opposite ends of the start box.
The first match on Course Juliet, overall the third match of the day on one of two racecourses, pits defending Louis Vuitton Cup champion Prada Challenge, from Italy's Yacht Club Punta Ala, against Oracle BMW Racing, from the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco.
Prada is the first Louis Vuitton Cup champion attempting to defend its title after losing America's Cup 2000, and both teams are considered among the favourites in the challenger selection series.
"It seems like a short time since we left Auckland,"
said Prada skipper Francesco de Angelis. "A lot of work has been done in these three years by all of the teams and participants. From tomorrow we will see the best of the sport on the water."
Excitement abounds in Auckland on the eve of the Louis Vuitton Cup. After a quiet build-up through mid-September, the level of expectations has ramped up after the opening parade and ceremony last Saturday.
Marcello Bottoli, appointed last year as president and CEO of Louis Vuitton, is overwhelmed with adrenaline. "Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Louis Vuitton Cup,"
Bottoli said at the press conference. "You can definitely count on our commitment for the next 20 years."
The second match on Course Romeo and second match of the day sees history square off against history. Team Dennis Conner, representing the New York Yacht Club, squares off against the GBR Challenge, representing the Royal Ocean Racing Club.
Conner, chief and skipper of his syndicate, has been in the Cup arena for nearly 30 years. In that span he's won four times and lost twice, earning the nickname Mr. America's Cup in the process. The GBR Challenge is the UK's first since 1986-'87, and this will be the featured match of the day on television.
"It's entirely appropriate that we get to sail against Dennis Conner and Stars & Stripes on the first day,"
said GBR Challenge skipper Ian Walker. "Britain, who hasn't been in the Cup for 15 years, sails against the team that hasn't missed one."
The first match of the day will pit another Louis Vuitton Cup favourite, the Alinghi Team from Société Nautique de Genève and led by skipper Russell Coutts, against France's Le Défi AREVA from Union Nationalé pour la Course au Large.
In 1995, Coutts led Team New Zealand through the Louis Vuitton Cup with a 36-2 record in started races.
As skipper for Team New Zealand, Coutts is undefeated in nine America's Cup matches between 1995 and 2000. Despite being labelled a favourite, a label he discredits, he's aware a trip to the XXXI Match won't be easy.
"This should be the best Louis Vuitton Cup ever,"
Coutts said. "The amount of preparation and the level of competition are higher than ever before."
The second match on Course Juliet sees the Seattle Yacht Club's OneWorld Challenge taking on Italy's Mascalzone Latino. This figures to be a relatively easy match for OneWorld given that Mascalzone president Vincenzo Onorato has said that he doesn't expect big things from his inexperienced crew.
Sweden's Victory Challenge, from the Gamla Stans Yacht Sällskap, receives its first round bye tomorrow. On Wednesday, 2 October, Victory will race le Defi AREVA. The Victory Challenge selected Jesper Bank, a triple Olympic medallist (two golds and one bronze), as the helmsman for its first match.
Mascalzone is the only challenger to have built just one new America's Cup Class sloop, ITA-72. "For sure we don't have any uncertainty as to which boat is better under what conditions,"
quipped skipper Paolo Cian, keeping with the team's light-hearted spirit.
Six of the other eight teams are expected to race their first boat in the round that runs 1-10 Oct., with a reserve day scheduled on 6 October.
OneWorld and Oracle BMW Racing are the only teams to enter their second boats, USA-67 and USA-76, respectively. Teams have until 12:05 today to change their minds. That's when the no-change period for Round Robin 1 begins, 24 hours before the warning gun for Match 1 is fired.
The preliminary forecast for tomorrow is southerly winds around 15 knots with a swell less than one metre. Hopefully, the conditions will be conducive to racing and the teams' right to request a postponement, which were abundant in 1999-2000, will be immaterial.
The first matches are due to start at 1210 local time in New zealand. For a complete schedule for the round robin draw, visit the Louis Vuitton website at the address below.