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Rich Boats Getting Richer

As challenger series of America's Cup turns to quarterfinals, Oracle BMW and Prada are making right moves.

November 05, 2002|Rich Roberts | Special to The Times

If one of the delights working-class fans have found in the America's Cup over the years has been watching the egomaniacal wealthy melt down, Larry Ellison and Patrizio Bertelli have been major disappointments.

Fire Oracle BMW's mellow and talented helmsman Peter Holmberg, then replace him with the overbearing Chris Dickson, who had been exiled eight months earlier with the crew in near mutiny?

It worked for Ellison. His Golden Gate Yacht Club entry from San Francisco hasn't lost since.

Fire Prada's designer, Doug Peterson, whose creations had won the Cup for New Zealand in 1995 and reached the final match again for Prada in 2000? After only one race?

It worked for Bertelli. Prada, 4-4 in the first round-robin of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger trials, soared to 7-1 in the second after rebuilding the front end of its boat -- under Bertelli's direction -- in only five days.

Maybe Bertelli knows something about boats as well as upscale fashion accessories. Maybe Ellison understands people as well as software. Or maybe Dickson recognized the real problem when he suggested that Ellison get off the boat and bring Holmberg back on board. What it means is that Oracle BMW and Prada are in the top bracket of the quarterfinals starting next week, along with Switzerland's quietly efficient Alinghi and Seattle's OneWorld.

That's important in the challengers' new scheme. The racing is turning to best-of-seven series matchups. The top four enjoy the security of a double-elimination format, but the bottom four -- Sweden's Victory, Britain's GBR, Team Dennis Conner and France's Le Defi Areva -- are on the chopping block.

Looking at it another way, the two winners in the top four advance directly to the semifinals. The two losers meet the two winners from the bottom four, and a bottom-four boat has defeated a top-four boat only three times in 32 races. The two losers in the bottom four go home.

Italy's Mascalzone Latino has already left after winning only one of 16 races. The quarterfinal lineup, with records: Upper bracket -- Alinghi (13-3) vs. Prada (11-5); Oracle BMW (12-4) vs. One World (12-3, after one victory was deducted as a penalty).

Lower bracket -- Victory (7-9) vs. Le Defi Areva (2-14); GBR (7-9) vs. Team Dennis Conner (6-10).

Alinghi was privileged to pick its opponent, raising specters of Team New Zealand's 5-0 blitz of Prada in the final match three years ago. The Italians will see the core of that invincible Kiwi crew now sailing for Switzerland: skipper Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth, along with Simon Daubney, Dean Phipps, Warwick Fleury and Murray Jones.

Michel Bonnefous, the executive director of Alinghi, said: "It wasn't an easy decision. We expect it to be an extraordinary series of matches, sure to incite passion and excitement in Europe."

Alinghi beat Prada in the first round, then forfeited in the second round, taking a day off after clinching first place.

The lower four offer a nostalgic match between Britain and the New York Yacht Club, which is where this whole thing started 151 years ago. The Brits are back in the competition for the first time in 15 years and doing about as well as could be expected with a young, inexperienced crew.

Conner's team is doing worse than expected.

The man who lost the Cup to Australia while sailing for the NYYC in '83 made amends after two decades but apparently hasn't changed the club's luck at getting it back.

With adequate funding this time, he was able to build two boats. Unfortunately, one sank and the other is slow.

In his only appearance on board so far, Conner, 60, relieved helmsman Ken Read for one race and beat Mascalzone Latino on its way out the door. The veteran team has been scrambling every way it can -- requesting a postponement because of broken gear, protesting that a losing race shouldn't have been run because the wind was too low -- but it is about out of options.

Read said, hopefully: "We're concentrating on new speed techniques and some fine-tuning on crew roles as we prepare for the quarterfinals."

But their best hope is USA 77, the other Stars & Stripes boat that was salvaged after sinking off Long Beach in July and has been rebuilt and tested in Auckland.

The teams may change boats for the quarterfinals, but they don't have to say so until next weekend.

Meanwhile, Alinghi keeps ticking. Whatever flag the Kiwis are flying, they're still the team to beat.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Louis Vuitton Cup

*--* Team R W L Pts Alinghi 16 13 3 13 Oracle 16 12 4 12 x-OneWorld 16 13 3 12 Prada 16 11 5 11 Victory 16 7 9 7 GBR Challenge 16 7 9 7 Team Dennis Conner 16 6 10 6 Le Defi Areva 16 2 14 2 Mascalzone Latino 16 1 15 1

*--*

(Each win worth one point; one team to be eliminated after two round-robins.)

(x-OneWorld deducted one point by arbitration panel for pre-regatta violation.)

Upcoming

Quarterfinals (Nov. 12-19)

(Best-of-seven competition. Winners of top-half quarterfinals advance to semifinals. Losers meet in repechage against winners from bottom-half quarterfinals.)

No. 1 Alinghi vs. No. 4 Prada.

No. 2 Oracle BMW vs. No. 3 OneWorld.

No. 5 Victory vs. No. 8 Le Defi Areva.

No. 6 GBR Challenge vs. No. 7 Team Dennis Conner.

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