Is Britain's Olympic hero about to sail into history? Sir Ben Ainslie's £120m dream of winning the America's Cup takes a sensational turn

21 January 2021 - By Rory Ross, Daily Mail

Sir Ben Ainslie and the ten-man crew aboard the £120 million monohull Britannia are in with a chance to do battle in the 36th America’s Cup, the 170-year-old sailing competition that this nation has never won

His boat has been dismissed as a ‘corgi’ up against a ‘greyhound and two whippets’ and, having lost six consecutive races and scored ‘nul points’, the man dubbed Britain’s greatest sailor since Sir Francis Drake might not disagree.

But this week, Sir Ben Ainslie, the most-decorated yachtsman in Olympic history — with four golds and a silver to his name — staged one of his legendary comebacks.

Now, against all expectations, he and the ten-man crew aboard the £120 million monohull Britannia are in with a chance to do battle in the 36th America’s Cup, the 170-year-old sailing competition that this nation has never won.

After those six defeats in the pre-Christmas warm-up event in New Zealand, Sir Ben and Ineos Team UK this week have stormed back into contention with four wins out of four in the Prada Cup, the contest to determine which team, Britain, Italy or America, will take on the holders, New Zealand, in the America’s Cup final in March — for a prize of $1 million (£730,000).

If Britannia wins just one of its two races against Italy’s Luna Rossa this weekend, it will progress to the Prada Cup final next month. Victory then would mean Ineos Team UK becoming the first British challenger for the America’s Cup since 1964.

It’s an astonishing turnaround that has electrified the homegrown yachting community and promises to turn Sir Ben, 43, into a hero for a new generation. Aficionados of the America’s Cup are still cooing over his performance in the 2013 competition.

Then, the U.S. Oracle Team were losing 0-4 (to New Zealand in the finals) when the boat’s sponsor, computer tycoon Larry Ellison, decided to parachute in Sir Ben as tactician. From being 1-8 down at one stage, Oracle staged a miraculous recovery to win the Cup 9-8.

But Sir Ben’s latest Houdini act has created much more controversy. There have been dark mutterings about unsporting tactics, in particular a practice known in the sport as ‘sandbagging’ — deliberately underperforming to lull your opponents into a false sense of security.

One veteran skipper observed this week: ‘I’m sorry guys, but does anyone else think they’ve [Ineos] been sandbagging? It’s unbelievable what we’re seeing . . . Where did this come from?’

The answer is from an extremely sophisticated and well-funded outfit. Sir Ben, who made his name sailing tiny single-handed dinghies, now stands at the head of a team made up of dozens of top-flight designers, scientists, engineers and mechanics backed by Jim Ratcliffe, founder of the chemicals giant Ineos and one of Britain’s richest men.

The billionaire funded the development of the 75 ft, 6.5-ton state-of-the-art monohull yacht, which ‘flies’ on foils — in effect, wings affixed to the hull which, as the speed increases, are pushed upwards so raising the boat — attaining speeds of around 50 knots (57.5mph).

Designed with the aid of super-computers and using advanced materials, every aspect of the boat’s performance is monitored and fed back in real time so technicians can sift, crunch, dice and slice the data to advise the crew what to do next — and when — in a race.

Sir Ben and Jim met via a mutual friend, yacht broker Chris Cecil-Wright. ‘I introduced Ben to Jim over a G&T in a London club three years ago,’ he told the Mail.

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