America’s Cup : Luna Rossa, ready to ride the wave
The five crews of the 36th America's Cup have started a race against time to make up for the days spent in confinement. One crew, Luna Rossa, the next Cup’s challenger, has set sail again. An exclusive interview with Max Sirena, Luna Rossa’s Skipper and Team Director
20,7 m + 2m
hull and bowsprit
budget of Luna Rossa
At the Luna Rossa base in Cagliari, days follow nights at a hellish pace. The engineers, technicians and sailors who make up the hundred or so members of the Italian team are a frenzy of activity around the Prada colors of the AC75. The countdown is on. The watch sponsor Panerai is not far away. The dismasting, followed quickly by the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, has strained the team’s nerves to the breaking point. Captain Max Sirena has participated in six Cups and brought home two wins: one with BMW Oracle at the 33rd America's Cup and one with the Emirates New Zealand Team in the most recent edition in Bermuda. This year, he is putting it all on the line again. But this 36th edition is unlike any other. Disrupted by a pandemic that paralyzed the whole world, the work to be done to take home the Cup is now gigantic. The new AC75 hydrofoil monohull category is the most extreme the sailing world has ever known. Without a doubt, it marks the beginning of a new era.
Sailing a boat launched at 100 km/h is a technological feat some would call pure madness, halfway between a Formula 1 and an airplane. The 23-metre-long flying object is spectacular to watch. The challenge: flying over water to win. And Luna Rossa wants to win big. The boat’s history starts 20 years ago and is intimately linked to one man, Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of the Prada Group. Six Cups later, Luna Rossa accepted the challenge to take on the New Zealanders, who won the 35th America's Cup against Oracle's Americans. Here is Max Sirena’s exclusive account of the challenges that still await the Italian crew before the first regatta in Auckland.
Covid-19 has caused a lot of disruption in the preparation for the America's Cup. How has it affected you?
Fortunately, the base never closed, but all offshore activity was suspended for 35 days. So, we put all our efforts into research and development. Ten days after Easter, we got the green light to return to sea. Of course, we had to adapt to new health regulations and social distancing requirements, so instead of eleven crew members, we could have only five on board. We mainly replaced the "grinders" with "power packs" (electric motors) that produce the energy required by the boat. At the end of April, we were the only team to return to sea.
Were there delays in the construction of the second boat?
Yes, there was a big delay. We are still adjusting our program to catch up. But we know that the other crews are facing the same problem. Some shipyards had to close, for example in New Zealand. We know that we're going to have to deal with the pandemic for months to come. We need to learn how to work around Covid-19.
Due to the crisis, the two regattas in Cagliari and Portsmouth were cancelled. A big setback...
They were obviously opportunities to compete and to take the measure of each other's performance. But that is simply not going to happen. And it's a huge loss, especially because the class of boat we're sailing is brand new. It's a leap into the unknown. The first races will take place in December in New Zealand. What we’ve built by that point is what we will have to go on, no changes will be allowed. That makes simulation a real strategic asset at the moment.
Spying on your competitors is another?
Well, yes, that's part of the game. Before the lockdown, each team’s zodiac got close to the other boats to sneak peeks from as close as possible. We had four boats around us at all times when we went out to sea. These last few days, when we were back at sea, it was quite strange to be sailing alone. As soon as the borders open, we will be able to send team members out again to keep an eye on the competition.
The 36th America's Cup marks your seventh participation. What's different this time?
The America's Cup is totally addictive. Personally, every time, when it’s over I feel drained and am glad to get to rest. But it only takes a few days before I start getting that tingling again, those late-night thoughts that come over me like flashes, telling me I could or should have done something differently, and then I’m all caught up in it again. It's an addiction. You think about it all the time. The America's Cup gives you a lot, but it takes a lot from you too, even more, on a personal level. We live on the base like we’re in a box, about 12 to 16 hours a day. When you accept the challenge, there are two rules to be aware of: one, at the America's Cup, time lost is lost forever, and two, there is no second prize.
This year you’re back with the Italian crew. Is that a special feeling?
Yes, I owe everything to Luna Rossa and Patrizio Bertelli. I'm Italian and very attached to the flag. And the Italian brands associated with the boat are all leaders in their field, I'm thinking of Prada, Pirelli, Panerai... It's a source of pride.
What is your personal connection to the Panerai brand?
I am a watch enthusiast. And I have the pleasure of owning some beautiful pieces, including four Panerai ones that I collected long before this edition of the America's Cup, but I'm delighted that my collection is growing (laughs). When Jean-Marc Pontroué called to meet me, I was very touched. I really like the history of the brand and being able to participate in the development of the watches and materials like carbon has been exciting.
According to you, how is sailing on the AC 75 even more extreme than on the AC 50 catamaran?
On a technical and dynamic level, this boat is absolutely unique. In flight, its balance, on the razor's edge, is completely different. When writing the class rules with Team New Zealand, we had a few worries. You have to imagine, you’ve got no less than three computers managing the boat's functions, the movement of the foils, the helm, the sails, and so on, and so forth, and the boat is very unique in its own right. It is much closer to a helicopter, in terms of software, than a boat. Even the terminology is similar. We talk about autopilot, flight control… By comparison, the AC 50 was much simpler, in terms of software, mechanics, hydraulics and electronics. The multihulls were smaller, with fewer functions. With the AC 75, the hull design is much freer and leaves more room for technological developments than with the AC 50, which had components that were the same for all. Freedom is much greater this time.
How does it feel to sail?
The boat is imposing in its volumes, but very light. It's hard to describe the emotion. You don't feel the speed, until you look at the speedometer (laughs). The boat jumps from one wave to another. Its possibilities are vast and were still unthinkable only eight months ago. Performance is evolving every day. The winning team will be the one that is most agile in understanding and adapting to the boat’s untapped potential. Today we have a 30% margin for improvement, in terms of navigation and materials. And in terms of top speed, we have already reached 49 knots and there is still room for improvement.
Your crew is very young. Are these boats particularly physically demanding?
Yes, a regatta lasts 25 minutes and the grinders are obviously strategic, they must give their all for the duration of that time. They're young and very physically in shape. But beyond the physical aspect, Luna Rossa needs young people to prepare its future
What is the budget for victory and what are Fabrizio Bertelli's expectations?
The America's Cup is always very expensive, because we work with a highly sophisticated and complex object. Luna Rossa's budget is set at 95 million euros in total, from the initial development to the race. I know the British have a budget of £115 million, and the Americans have the same. The New Zealanders have an amount equivalent to ours. As for Fabrizio Bertelli's expectations, they are obviously very high. We talk on the phone three to four times a day. It would also be a great victory for Italy, a country that has gone through some terrible ordeals with Covid-19. I received a totally unexpected phone call the other day… A very high-ranking national figure, whose name I will not mention, said to me: "I'm calling because Italy needs you at this particular moment. This challenge projects an image of strength and positivity that we all need." Motivation takes on a whole new dimension here…
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