The America’s Cup runneth over with cash….which could have been ours!

Yes, I know the ‘America’s Cup’ is actually – in theory anyway – a sailing event; and – as such – should get short shrift from an enthusiast-based and focused ‘motor racing’ website like this one (Talk Motorsport).

On the face of it, for instance, the supremely clean, green, sport of sailing – whereby only the natural elements (you know, wind, water, wave action, that sort of thing) are allowed to be harnessed – is the absolute antithesis of the dirty old (hydrocarbon guzzling, CO2 spewing, and raucous, ear drum-splitting, noise-making) motorised sport fans like you and I have grown to know and love.

Chip away at the highly polished veneer of respectability and responsibility those who preside over the highest echelons of both activities (Formula 1 as far as motor racing is concerned and the America’s Cup vis a vis sailing) however, and, well all I can say is, when I did this exercise, I came up with more similarities than differences.

The two are so similar, in fact that they might as well be two (big, fat juicy ones at that) peas from the same pod.

Both quickly became crucibles into which dreams, talent, technology and – most to all – money were forged together to produce better, faster, cars and boats for the chosen few drivers, sailors and entrepreneurial boat and/or team owners to prove their own worth.

The stakes – particularly over the past 30-40 years when each activity has enjoyed exponential growth and interest on the back of global TV deals – have never been higher, the reason, no doubt why neither activity has exactly struggled to attract the superrich – no matter how great the odds are when it comes to new entrants.

You don’t have to dig too deep to turn up individuals over the years who have had a hand in both, either.

I’m sure there were others before him too, but arguably the best known (or ‘most famous,’ take your pick!) is Briggs Swift Cunningham II (born Jan 19 1907-died aged a grand old 96 on July 02 2003).

Though he had a lifelong passion for and involvement with building and racing sportscars and entered the Le Mans 24-hour race (either as a driver or team owner) several times from 1950 through until 1964, Cunningham’s family wealth meant that he could indulge his passions – sailing boats and building and racing cars – without fear of something as tiresome as ‘proper, paid work’ getting in the way.’

Briggs Cunningham

And so, as far back as 1931 he was a member of the winning crew aboard the racing yacht Dorade, in the UK’s annual Fastnet race, while in 1958, skippering the Columbia, he successfully repelled the challenge from British boat Sceptre aboard to win the first post WWII America’s Cup regatta.

Our own Grant Stanley Dalton OBE is also well-known for his dual land-based passions, riding, and racing motorcycles on and off road, and driving and racing cars.

I first ran into…. (er, let me rephrase that!!) I first came into contact with Dalton (hmm, that’s not much better is it, so let’s try….

Dalton first tripped my motor racing radar way back in the days of the Nissan-Mobil 500 Wellington Street Race when he was invited to compete in a celebrity car race on the back of his successes as a skipper in the then high profile Whitbread Round the World yacht races.

Grant Dalton campaigned with Karcher Racing in the Porsche GT3 Challenge Cup in NZ

Since then I have maintained what you could call a professional interest in his activities on and off the water…all the time cringing at the way the mainstream media seems to have it in for the poor bugger…

I suppose that comes with the territory when you are very much a hands-on manager of what you could call one of the ultimate public/private partnerships in New Zealand sport, the Emirates Team New Zealand America’s Cup campaign.

Our nation’s love-hate relationship with the America’s Cup arguably began in the late 1980s when celebrated financiers Sir Michael Fay and erstwhile business partner David Richwhite successfully used the America’s Cup to launch themselves onto the global business stage.

First came KZ7, the justifiably famous fibreglass-hulled ‘Plastic Fantastic’ (the Chris Dickson-skippered 12-metre race boat which finished second to ‘Dirty’ Dennis Connor’s Stars & Stripes 87 in the challenger series off the coast of Fremantle in Western Australia), then the sad saga of the beautiful ‘big boat,’ KZ1, beaten by a catamaran sailed by the duplicitous Connor.

All the work (not to mention millions of dollars spent both on the boats and in the courts here and in the US) Fay – in particular – put into the America’s Cup through these heady years did eventually pay off; the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron syndicate, Team New Zealand , with Dunedin’s Russell Coutts at the helm of NZL32 (aka Black Magic) finally relieving Dennis Connor’s Stars and Stripes syndicate of The Auld Mug in 1995.

Team leader Sir Peter Blake and skipper Russell Coutts then successfully held on to the trophy after a challenge from Italian boat Prada in Auckland over the summer of 1999-2000, only for Swiss biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli to basically ‘buy’ the Kiwi ‘brains trust’ of Coutts and Team NZ tactician Brad Butterworth and win the cup ‘for Switzerland’ in 2003.

One of the really interesting things to come out of these ultra-high stakes, ultra-litigious times (or at least I think it is anyway) is that it could have all been so different.

I have it on the very best of authority, for instance, that when Sir Michael Fay and David Richwhite were tossing around ideas as to how they could raise their profile on the ‘international stage’ they didn’t just look at using the America’s Cup.

Obviously with a head office on Auckland’s Queen Street, complete with imposing views of the Waitemata Harbour, and the then recent global publicity bonanza generated by Sir Peter Blake and Grant Dalton on successive visits to Auckland when it was a stopover for the Whitbread (and later the Volvo) Round The World yacht race it’s not hard to see why they went with the America’s Cup campaign…..

One of the other options they did consider, apparently however, was the purchase and running of an F1 team!

Several were either for sale – as complete going concerns – at the time. Tom Walkinshaw’s Arrows being one, Minardi – a team you might recall enjoying the patronage of Aussie airline owner Paul Stoddart around this time – another.

Had Bruce McLaren lived – and retained the family and business ties with his ‘home town’ he had established in the lead-up to his death in 1970 (including buying what is now the big Caltex service station site in Te Atatu) – Kiwis would have had a much more direct link to Formula 1, and therefore it would have been harder to ‘sell’ the idea of ‘winning an obscure yacht race few here had ever heard of and even fewer cared about….

However that’s the decision Fay and Richwhite made and all credit to them it has created a legacy ‘product’ that has certainly put New Zealand, and the achievements of some of our best sportsmen and women, and technical types on the global map.

It is into this ultimate pressure-cooker environment that comes the latest new entrant – or super-rich dilletante (the latter a wonderful word defined as ‘a person who cultivates an area of interest…..without real commitment of knowledge) – take your pick, ‘Sir’ James (call me Jim!) Arthur Ratcliffe, the chairman of the huge British-based INEOS chemicals group and erstwhile ‘Richest Person in the UK,’ thanks to a net worth, as reported by Wikipedia, of 21.05 billion pounds ($NZ41.03 billion).

Sir James Ratcliffe

His decision to back top British yachtsman Ben Ainslie’s Team UK bid is not the only ‘extracurricular’ activity on Sir James books at the moment either.

Right now he has an international team of experts putting the finishing touches to the INEOS Grenadier, a tough, old-skool style 4WD designed to slot into the market where the late and – in some quarters, very much lamented – Land Rover Defender left off.

Land Rover has only revealed an all-new Defender, but it is way too sophisticated for Ratcliffe and his mates, who believe that simpler is better, so – as you do – he has decided to build his own!

A similar rationale was behind his recent purchase of Great Britain’s famous Belstaff brand. Belstaff pioneered the use of waxed cotton as the material of choice to keep motorcycle riders dry and warm through the long British winters back-in-the-day.

Unfortunately the brand fell on hard times and after what appears to have been a disastrous attempt to relaunch it as an upmarket fashion accessory, Ratcliffe, who knew all about the brand thanks to a still very active interest in adventure motorcycle riding, bought it to effectively save it from the heathen hordes!

OK. So he might not ‘quite’ be in the same league as his immediate predecessor in the America’s Cup ego-flexing stakes, US computer-industry mover and shaker Larry Ellison, whose current net worth is believed to be $US69.1 billion (or $NZ107.5 billion). But Sir Jim has obviously decided that he has enough ‘spare change’ to ‘invest’ 110 million pounds ($NZ214.26 million) in Olympic gold medallist Ainslie’s Portsmouth-based America’s Cup squad, now named (or course!) INEOS Team UK.

As Kiwis, of course, we’ve had a front row seat to all the on and off-water drama that IS the America’s Cup since brash Australian Alan Bond finally managed to wrest it away from San Diego sailor Dennis Connor’s in 1983.

I remember acquaintances of mine who were really into their sailing, flying to Perth to watch the 1987 America’s Cup event – and not just because of the ‘main event’ (won back, needless to say, by the graceless Connor in a new boat, Stars & Stripes.)

No, by this stage what started – way back in 1851, making the real ‘America’s Cup’ (aka The Auld Mug) the oldest international sporting trophy still being contested – as a simple race around the Isle of Wight off the south coast of Great Britain, had morphed into a true international spectacle complete with a series-within-a-series (the Louis Vuitton Cup) to whittle down the number of challengers to just the one) and the aforementioned global TV audience.

Formula 1, by way of comparison, is a mere ‘babe-in-arms,’ having only finally gotten going in 1947.

Still the comparison is as valid now as is was when Messrs Fay & RIchwhite were casting around for an ‘international calling card’ back in the mid-to-late 1980s.

As Sir James told the CNN Sports News website when he officially announced his (sole) title sponsorship of the Ben Ainslie bid in 2018:

“I suppose I was the intriguing question of why, after 167 years of attempts, Britain still hadn’t managed to win this sailing event, given we’ve produced quite a lot of good sailors over the years, ruled he waves for a few centuries, and are really good at Formula One, which is a (similar) marriage of technology and sport.”

The 2021 America’s Cup presented by Prada will be sailed on Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour between March 06 and March 21 next year.

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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