Saturday's race between Alinghi and Oracle BMW Racing, the first race of the Louis Vuitton Cup Final, will mark the 20th year of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the series that determines who will Challenge for the America's Cup.
Racing in this anniversary year features two very worthy Challengers who have each cut a swathe through the opposition en route to this best-of-nine Final series.
Russell Coutts' Alinghi team has the better racing record at this event so far, sitting at 21-3 to Oracle BMW's 20-8. Coutts is also the winning skipper in the past two America's Cups, and he has a solid contingent among his Alinghi crew of men who were with him for those two victorious campaigns, bolstered by a talented, multi-national team.
Alinghi's opponent, the Oracle BMW Racing team, has blossomed under skipper Chris Dickson's leadership. Syndicate chief Larry Ellison, unhappy with what he perceived as a slow start, brought Dickson back from the sidelines early in Round Robin Two and the team hasn't looked back with Dickson quickly crafting an 11-race win streak.
But the winning streak ended when Oracle BMW Racing bumped up against Alinghi in the Semi Final where Coutts swept Dickson into the Repechage in four consecutive races. Those are the only four races that Dickson has lost in the Louis Vuitton Cup.
Those aren't very encouraging statistics for the Oracle BMW squad. But Dickson says the USA-76 that he will sail in the Louis Vuitton Cup Final is a very different boat from the one Alinghi beat in early December.
"The sail number of the boat that we are using is same, but after that the similarities disappear quickly,"
said Dickson at the pre-race press conference. "The boat is significantly different. We've found boatspeed in a lot of different areas and I don't think we've compromised any other areas to get it."
"We have a lot of respect for their team,"
Coutts said of Oracle BMW Racing. "We think they have made a lot of improvements to their boat and we are looking for a real battle this time."
One change from the previous races in the Louis Vuitton Cup will be the use of on-board observers to assist the Umpires, as reported on this site yesterday.
"The onboard observers, who are members of the Umpire team, will be right at the back of the boat where each team has put a protection bar,"
explained Bryan Willis, Chairman of the International Jury. "It is their prime purpose to assess when an overlap is established between the boats or broken and then give that information immediately to the two skippers, so the skippers know at the same time as the Umpires whether or not an overlap has been made or broken. The other duty for them is to relay certain information from the Umpires to the afterguard, so the afterguards know when the Umpires have determined, for example, when a tack is complete."
"It changes the game slightly, it's a better game. It is better for the skippers to be in tune with the Umpire's decision,"
Willis said. "The afterguards have asked for it and they prefer it, so we are very happy to provide the service."
"I think it's a very positive move,"
said Alinghi skipper, Russell Coutts. "I think it lets the competitors know what the Umpiring decision is going to be and it doesn't allow for silly penalties that might affect the result, so that's good."
"We have always been in favour of having them onboard as it will take away some of the uncertainty,"
Dickson agreed. "We are looking forward to using the system."
Racing is scheduled to begin in the best-of-nine Louis Vuitton Cup Final at 13:15 local time on Saturday afternoon.
The forecast is for moderate Northeast wind at 8 to 10 knots, increasing throughout the afternoon to 19 knots. Scattered showers are forecast for the Hauraki Gulf on Saturday.