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What took America out of the Cup?

Some say BMW Oracle was outsailed; others say CEO/helmsman Chris Dickson had too much on his plate

Some say BMW Oracle was outsailed; others say CEO/helmsman Chris Dickson had too much on his plate

Never write off the intangibles as a factor in America’s Cup rivalries. That may be one lesson gleaned from BMW Oracle’s collapse in the semifinals of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger elimination series in Valencia, Spain. The American syndicate lost to Italy’s Luna Rossa 5-1 in the best-of-nine series. It is the first time a U.S. challenge has failed to make the finals.

“The team simply had no soul, no chemistry,” says Paul Cayard, who won the Louis Vuitton Cup with Italian syndicate Il Moro di Venezia in 1992, then unsuccessfully sailed against Bill Koch’s America3 for the America’s Cup.

Underwritten in part by American software tycoon Larry Ellison, BMW Oracle’s budget was an estimated $200 million — probably the biggest of the 11 challengers. “They lacked nothing,” Cayard says. By most accounts, their Bruce Farr/Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed USA 98 was as fast as any of the challenger yachts, yet time and again Luna Rossa edged out the American boat to win the start and the race.

“I was very surprised at the disappointing performance by BMW Oracle Racing,” says Gary Jobson, a savvy Cup observer and tactician for Ted Turner’s winning Courageous campaign in 1977. Jobson says the challenger boats, designed to Version 5 of a rule adopted 18 years ago, are very close in speed, but the race course is short — four legs or 12 miles, which is half the distance the 12 Meters raced from 1958 to 1987.

“This puts a real premium on crew work and tactics,” says Jobson. “The weight of the defeat rests on the shoulders of Chris Dickson, who tried to serve as skipper, helmsman and CEO of the entire campaign.”

He says today’s Cup campaigns are too big and complicated and stressful for one person to manage while trying to helm the boat, as well. “BMW Oracle Racing had the boat speed to win but lacked the talent on the starting line and struggled tactically,” he says.

Dee Smith, general manager/tactician for South Africa’s Shosholoza syndicate, agreed that BMW Oracle never took charge against Luna Rossa. “Chris [Dickson] just didn’t get the starts against James [Spithill, Luna Rossa’s helmsman], and I think that was it,” he says. “Of the boats left, the one who wins the most starts should win the Cup. James was hot, and Chris was not. All the other questions are for the rumor mill.”

Cayard, who expressed reservations about Dickson privately before the racing, says giving Dickson all the major team roles was a bad idea, but he also cited poor chemistry between the hard-driving skipper and his team. “Not the right guy in charge,” Cayard says, and that may have been compounded by BMW Oracle’s huge edge in resources.

“I think they got themselves into a position where they had to win,” he says. “They lacked nothing. There would be no excuse to lose. They spent an obscene amount of money. I think the pressure of that eventually got to Dickson.”

Cayard says the Kiwi was just not as good a helmsman as Spithill in the semifinals, “but probably no one will be in this America’s Cup. … You have to find ways to neutralize your opponent’s strengths and leverage yours,” he says.

Taking a different tack, Cup historian John Rousmaniere thought the Italian boat was both faster and better sailed than the American one. “It seems that most of the fleet gained speed and starting edges over Oracle in the second round-robin, when Oracle often had to come from behind,” he says. “Perhaps Oracle was experimenting with different sail plans and appendages. Oracle lost two critical races that would have given them first seed to send them up against the relatively weak Spanish. At the same time, Luna Rossa was finding new speed where it counts, which is on the starting line.” Rousmaniere says Luna Rossa seemed more maneuverable and faster accelerating, suggesting a better rudder-keel combination.

“I understand that there was some discontinuity in the afterguard,” he says. “Ellison did not sail in the crew in the round-robins but did in the semis. No matter how capable the new fellow is, a change like that may damage teamwork, communications and decision-making — all of which are often split-second. Winners rotate grinders in and out, but sail trimmers and the afterguard remain constant.”

Yet another take, from Tom Whidden, CEO of North Marine Group and a 27-year Cup veteran, is that the Italians were hot, the Americans were not. It happens all the time in sports: An underdog catches fire, and there’s no stopping them. “[BMW Oracle] ran into a buzz saw with the Italians,” he says.

Luna Rossa’s unconventional tactics may have been a factor, too. “They didn’t use classic match-racing tactics,” but raced as if they were in a fleet, Whidden says. The tactics worked against BMW Oracle. “But [Luna Rossa tactician Torben] Grael would be quick to say they didn’t work that well against New Zealand,” he says. (Emirates Team New Zealand defeated Luna Rossa in five straight races and will face the Swiss Alinghi syndicate for the America’s Cup.)

Whidden says USA 98 had the most innovative spars, and its sails looked good. “It’s hard to imagine Farr didn’t give them a good boat,” he says. “A lot of people were quick to criticize Chris Dickson, and probably he tried to do too many things. … But I have a hard time criticizing them. It’s a tough game.”

He predicts Ellison will be back for the next Cup, maybe Dickson, too. “He’s definitely talented,” Whidden says.

Sponsored by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Yacht Club, BMW Oracle was American in name, but its Web site lists 37 sailors from nine countries, including 20 from New Zealand, five from Australia and only four from the United States. Jobson would like to see the next U.S. challenger showcase U.S. talent. Would that difference be good for team chemistry? Cayard doubts it.

“Multinational is not a problem,” he says. “Luna Rossa is much more multinational than BMW. So is Desafio Espanol.” He says Dickson just failed to bring the team together.

Yet maybe a truly national team would draw more U.S. television viewers to the Cup. Just 88,000 households watched the Luna Rossa-BMW Oracle finale May 20 on the Versus cable TV channel, which amounts to a 0.1 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. By comparison on the same day 173,000 households watched professional bull riding on Versus, 424,000 households tuned into a poker tournament on ESPN2, and 2.7 million went to ESPN to watch the Mets-Yankees baseball game.

Going back to an all-national U.S. team could improve television viewership, but that may be a dream of a time past, says Dennis Conner, Mr. America’s Cup.

“Some people want to turn back the clock,” says Conner, who made a point in the 1990s of hiring U.S. talent for his U.S. Cup syndicates. “However, things change. Look at Michael Schumacher. He won seven Formula 1 World Championships for Ferrari, not for Germany.”