**Ben Glover is in Dubai courtesy of Sail GP, covering event seven in the 2022/23 SailGP season
Legendary Australian sailor Jimmy Spithill has tipped “carnage” on the water at Dubai as SailGP’s nine crews take to one of sailing‘s tightest race courses for the seventh stop in the 2022/23 season.
Dubai is hosting a Grand Prix weekend for the first time in an expanded season three calendar, with a confronting course greeting the world’s leading sailors.
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Going into the all-important leg of the series, Australia’s Tom Slingsby-led crew has a one-point lead atop the standings, with Peter Burling’s New Zealand breathing down its neck.
Sitting in third spot is France, with the Ben Ainslie-led Great Britain just one point behind them in fourth.
Canada, Denmark, United States, Spain and Switzerland round out the field, with the top seven boats all positioned with a realistic shot of making the three-boat grand final race for $1 million (USD) to be staged in San Francisco in May.
The United States was a serious contender last series, making the grand final alongside the triumphant Australia and Japan.
Yet a shocking start to the 2022/23 season has given the Americans a tough task to climb back into a grand final position this time around.
Spithill, an Aussie who sealed sailing immortality with a famous America’s Cup comeback victory in 2013 from 8-1 behind, has rightly forged a reputation as the fleet’s toughest scrapper and he’s brought the USA boat to Dubai in hot form having taken second place in Spain off the back of a win in France.
Yet he’s realistic about the position of the boat with four race weekends to go before the grand final.
“I think it’s important for the team because it’s important you have belief that you can get out there and win one of these race weekends. We’ve been fighting for that for quite some time. But we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Spithill said.
“We’ve got to climb quite a few positions to try and crack into that top three so we don’t have a choice, we’ve just got to get out there, try to post some consistent scores and get to the final race on Sunday and keep fighting our way back into the competition.”
Spithill added that the key to making further headway in Dubai would be keeping clear of the inevitable trouble that crops up over two days of racing.
“All the guys have said it, all the teams can win a race weekend, and so it just really is trying to avoid the carnage out there on a race track like this, I mean anything could happen.”
British driver Ben Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, tipped an “incredibly exciting” race weekend for spectators but said it would be a huge challenge to get to the front of the pack, with the tight race course set to keep the field close together, and strategy likely to trump outright boat speed.
“It’s going to be really tight. It’s going to be incredibly exciting for both competitors and spectators. It’ll come down to the manoeuvres, really tight boat-on-boat manoeuvres, and on such a tight race course trying to get separation from the other boats, because the moment you’re alongside too many other boats you’re all slowing each other down,” Ainslie said.
“So the boats that can separate and find some space will probably be the boats who end up doing quite well.”
Over SailGP’s brief history Australia’s superstar driver Slingsby has proven the most adept at getting results in all conditions, with the flying kangaroo hitting the front when it mattered most, in both series’ grand finals.
The hunted in 2022/23, Australia remains the standard bearer, with a slim lead at the top of the standings, and Slingsby is targeting fast starts to ensure it stays that way at the end of the weekend. In Friday’s practice races he managed to achieve just that, flying through the start mark so fast that in race one Australia beat the starting gun and copped a penalty. It recovered to finish third in that race before cruising to victory in the second and third. Slingsby was trumped by a Spanish master class in the three-boat practice race final but it was an overall strong day for the two-time defending champions.
“The start and mark one are going to be more important than normal,” Slingsby said.
“It’s kind of your equivalent to a street track in F1 where if anyone gets off cleanly and is out in front they’re going to be hard to overtake.
“It’s one of those tracks, so I think the positioning on the start and then trying to find a clean lane on a super tight race track if you’re back in the pack that’s going to be super important for moving up through the race.”
Slingsby described the course as “scary” after watching his competitors tear from mark one to the bottom gate in a practice session on Thursday.
“Yesterday we saw them doing some warm up laps and it took them under 30 seconds to get from mark one down to the bottom gate and that was a bit daunting,” he said.
“Fortunately they (the race marshals) opened it up a little bit more, but it’s very tight and if we get a bit of breeze – and from what I hear the forecast on Sunday has increased quite a lot, we saw some 16-18 knots of wind, and in this kind of race course – that’s going to be a handful.
“It’ll be exciting for you guys but scary for us.”
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