The pressure's turned up. The heat is on. It's do or die time. Win or go home. Whichever cliché you like, there's no other way to describe the plight facing the bottom four seeds in the Louis Vuitton Cup 2003 Quarter-Final.
The 5-8 seeds are in a sudden death tournament. With pairs racing a best-of-seven series, The Louis Vuitton Cup is now a true match-race regatta and there's no room for error. The moment one of the teams loses four races is the moment they pack up and head home.
As GBR Challenge skipper Ian Walker noted at the pre-round press conference, "Clearly not having made the top four we are in a sudden-death situation. It is harder for us to take a gamble with many of our decisions, be it crew decisions, boat decisions, or sail decisions."
No. 5 Victory Challenge (7-9) versus No. 8 le Défi AREVA (2-14)
As the No. 5 seed, determined by its record in the two round robins, Sweden's Victory Challenge, representing the Gamla Stans Yacht Sällskap, had the luxury of choosing its opponent for the Quarter-Final.
Victory beat le Défi AREVA, representing Union Nationale pour la Course au Large, 2-0 in the round robins, winning by a combined 2 minutes and 25 seconds. Victory is the only team to have beaten its quarterfinal opponent twice, and the choice was clear.
"We made our decision based on the numbers from the two rounds,"
said Victory helmsman Jesper Bank. "We have said several times that French do not show their potential. We just hope that they're influenced by fact that they are No. 8 and will keep sailing like they are No. 8."
Aware of that statistic, le Défi has continued to refine its program. Aside from modifications to its neon-lemon sloop, FRA-69, the team has also made a substantial change in its afterguard.
Helmsman Philippe Presti returns to the fold, replacing Luc Pillot. Also, Luc Gellusseau replaces Sébastien Destrémau as tactician. Finally, Fabrice Levet will fill Gellusseau's previous role as strategist/afterguard member. Philippe Mourniac remains the navigator.
Presti was the team's helmsman at the beginning of the Louis Vuitton Cup, with Pillot. But Presti was benched after three races in favour of Pillot in an effort to bring more experience to the helm. Now sailing team manager Pierre Mas has orchestrated another shake-up, and Pillot and Destrémau are benched.
The No. 15-ranked match-race skipper, Presti, 36, admitted that he's not comfortable coming back aboard, given the pressure of the situation, but he knows Bank well.
"I have had the opportunity of racing against him on the (Soling and match-racing) international circuit and the training matches we had against them in September were very useful,"
Le Défi is presuming that the Danish national Bank will helm Victory's sloop Orm, SWE-73. But Bank is one of two helmsmen for Victory along with Swede Magnus Holmberg.
Le Défi's presumption is a good bet. Bank has driven Victory in 15 of its 16 matches. Holmberg drove the other, a disastrous loss to Oracle BMW at the end of Round 1 when the genoa halyard broke five minutes into the match.
Victory Challenge, true to its methodical nature, won't announce its afterguard until later today. But skipper/project manager Mats Johansson confirmed that the team will continue to race Orm in the quarterfinals.
No. 6 GBR Challenge (7-9) versus No. 7 Team Dennis Conner (6-10)
In a match-up of the country that hosted the first Cup race and the country that made the event's history, the GBR Challenge, representing the Royal Ocean Racing Club, takes on Team Dennis Conner, representing the New York Yacht Club.
The teams split their round robin matches. Team Dennis Conner won in Round 1 by 20 seconds, while GBR Challenge claimed the rematch by 46 seconds. They were very evenly matched, but that form figures to change for the Quarter-Final.
Team Dennis Conner helmsman Ken Read announced today that they'll be sailing the resurrected USA-77, which sank during trials off Long Beach, Calif., last July.
The boat was so badly damaged that it had to have a new bow spliced on. Although the team wanted to race it in Round 2, they weren't confident it was ready for primetime. Now, those fears have been allayed.
"This is what we always considered to be our race boat,"
Read said. "We're comfortable that it has a speed edge over USA-66. We've had about 20 days of two-boat testing, enough so that the technical team and sailing team drew the same conclusions."
Read also said that he'll take the helm for the pre-start. After team leader Conner sailed Stars & Stripes, USA-66, in its Round 2 match against Mascalzone Latino, afterguard member Terry Hutchinson took over starting duties for the final two matches.
"I'll continue to start the boat,"
Read said while also explaining the roles of the afterguard. "Terry Hutchinson would be probably classified more in a tactician's role, whereas Tom Whidden has always been in more of a strategist role, boat-for-boat situations. Peter Isler has always fit more towards the navigator's role since he's the only one who knows how to turn on computer."
While the Americans have changed yachts, the British haven't. They've decided to continue using Wight Lightning, GBR-70, instead of switching to the more radical Wight Magic, GBR-78.
While Wight Lightning is a conventional AC sloop in that it has a standard keel/rudder arrangement, Wight Magic has a tandem keel arrangement underwater. Similar to New Zealand's NZL-20 of Louis Vuitton Cup 1992, Wight Magic's ballast bulb is suspended from two rotating struts.
Skipper Walker said that the team feels more comfortable with GBR-70."We believe we've learned more and more about the boat as the event's gone on, and we've made more changes to the boat since the last round robin. We felt GBR-70 presented the best opportunity to get through to the next round."