Sailing star Ainslie adds SailGP to his America’s Cup chase
Sailing star Sir Ben Ainslie and his main America’s Cup sponsor are taking over the British team for the second season of the SailGP global league.
It’s an interesting crossover for Ainslie, the most successful sailor in Olympic history and a former America’s Cup winner. Ainslie said he remains focused on trying to become the first Englishman to win the oldest trophy in international sports while wanting to participate in SailGP for commercial and competitive reasons.
The next America’s Cup is still more than a year away, although a series of preliminary regattas will start in April in Italy.
SailGP has announced four regattas for its second season, including a return to Cowes, England, not far from the base in Portsmouth that houses Ainslie’s America’s Cup challenger, INEOS Team UK.
SailGP is contested in fast, foiling 50-foot catamarans similar to the ones used in the 2017 America’s Cup, when Ainslie’s British team was eliminated in the challenger trials. The 36th America’s Cup will be sailed in the AC75 class of radical, foiling 75-foot monohulls.
Competing in SailGP will help with the development of his America’s Cup team, “although the two challenges are unique and the F50 catamarans are vastly different from the AC75 monohulls,” Ainslie said in an email to The Associated Press. “SailGP is the only league of its type with the best sailors in the world on the fastest boats on a global platform, meaning we can regularly compete at the highest level of sail racing — which will be a huge benefit for the team and our America’s Cup aspirations.”
Ainslie’s deal with SailGP was to be announced Tuesday in London.
The 42-year-old Ainslie said it is a commercial partnership and the squad will be known as the Great Britain SailGP Team presented by INEOS.
He has agreed to a contract for the 2020 season with the option to extend for three years.
“We are looking forward to getting out racing and making this a long-term partnership,” he said.
Ainslie will helm the SailGP team, which he said will be a combination of the crew from last season’s Great Britain SailGP squad and members of his America’s Cup team. Ainslie said Matt Gotrel has become a full-time member of the America’s Cup challenge alongside his SailGP commitments.
Ainslie expects to announce the full team before the second season begins in Sydney in February.
It’s unclear what role, if any, last year’s helmsman, Dylan Fletcher, will have. Fletcher is campaigning for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Less than a year after winning his fourth straight Olympic gold medal and record fifth games medal overall, Ainslie was a key member of the Oracle Team USA crew that rallied to win the America’s Cup in 2013. Oracle Team USA’s CEO was Russell Coutts, who now leads SailGP.
Coutts said Ainslie called him last month and said he was interested in joining SailGP.
“I wasn’t expecting the call, I’ll say that,” Coutts said in a phone interview with the AP. “But I’m not surprised such teams would be looking at this.
“He’s so talented,” Coutts added. “He’s the best-performing Olympic athlete in the sport, maybe the best-performing athlete in the sport, period. You’ve got to expect him to be competitive.”
Along with Australia’s Tom Slingsby and Japan’s Nathan Outteridge, Coutts thinks SailGP has three of the world’s top four helmsmen in high-performance boats. Slingsby, also part of Oracle Team USA’s America’s Cup win in 2013 and an Olympic gold medalist, beat Outteridge in the $1 million, winner-take-all finale of the inaugural SailGP season. SailGP expects to add a seventh team for 2020.
“The whole thing is designed and premised on getting close racing,” Coutts said. “You certainly saw some of that develop this year. We’ve seen some fantastic races, including the final this year. But as the other teams get more familiar and add sailors like Ben to the list, it’s only going to make the racing better.
“I think it’s a great fit,” added Coutts, who won the America’s Cup three times as a skipper and twice as Oracle Team USA’s CEO. “You’ve got to remember that we were only a startup less than 12 months ago. We hadn’t run a single event or established ourselves. This time last year we didn’t even have the boats finished. We’ve come a long way in the last 12 months. I think we’ve gone from being a startup to a fully fledged international sports league. And I think there are a lot of sailors out there now that want to become part of this.”
Coutts said the deal with Ainslie is a step toward SailGP’s goal of having the teams be financially sustainable.
SailGP was co-founded by Coutts and tech billionaire Larry Ellison after Oracle Team USA lost the America’s Cup to Emirates Team New Zealand in 2017.
“I really have to applaud Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts for their commitment to this vision for the sport,” Ainslie said. “Clearly it’s a vision that I support and it’s been great that they have taken this forward in professional sports to give a generation of sailors this opportunity in a global sporting league.”
In April 2018, Ainslie rebranded his America’s Cup team after receiving a commitment of $153 million (110 million pounds) from INEOS, a petrochemical company based in London. Ainslie launched his first America’s Cup boat, Britannia, in early October.