Ben Ainslie's America's Cup challenge hangs in balance

Mechanical failure in first race against New Zealand leaves British team facing uphill battle in Bermuda

Ban Ainslie, Land Tover BAR, America's Cup
Ben Ainslie's Land Rover BAR team in action at the America's Cup in Bermuda
(Image credit: Mark Lloyd/AFP/Getty)

America's Cup: Can Ben Ainslie win it for Britain?

25 May

British sailing legend Sir Ben Ainslie begins his America's Cup campaign this week, as he attempts to win the most prestigious prize in sailing for the first time with his Land Rover BAR team.

The winner will be crowned on 27 June, after a month of racing off the coast of Bermuda.

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But what is the America's Cup and how will the winner be decided?

What is the America's Cup?

Quite simply "the most famous sailing event in the world and the oldest competition in international sport", says the BBC.

It dates back to 1851, when the schooner America beat eight other boats in a race around the Isle of Wight.

Six years later, the trophy, known as the Auld Mug, was taken back across the Atlantic and donated to the New York Yacht Club. The US successfully defended the prize in 1870 and did not relinquish it until 1983, seeing off 24 challengers during the longest winning streak in sporting history.

It finally came to an end when the Royal Perth Yacht Club triumphed in Rhode Island with the yacht Australia II.

Although the rules and regulations have changed over the years, the final battle for the America's Cup is always between the defending champions and a single challenger, who must earn the right to race for the Auld Mug.

Who is competing this year?

In addition to the defending champions, Oracle Team USA, there will be teams from the UK, France, Sweden, New Zealand and, for the first time, Japan.

The British team, Land Rover BAR, are led by Ainslie, who was part of Oracle Team USA when they won the cup in sensational fashion in 2013.

How does the competition work?

Despite the fact there are only six teams involved, the competition is not straightforward.

"In 2015 and 2016, preliminary racing was held at selected venues for America’s Cup World Series," explains the Daily Telegraph. "Ben Ainslie’s team, Land Rover BAR, won that event, meaning they will take a two-point advantage to Bermuda... Oracle finished second, so will start with one point."

The first round, starting on 26 May, is the America's Cup Qualifiers, with all six yachts racing against each other twice, with a point for each win.

After that, the lowest placed challenger is eliminated and the four remaining boats begin the semi-finals, with the defending champions given a bye to the final.

The second stage, known as the Challenger Play-offs, begins on 4 June, when the four teams are paired off. They will race each other as many as nine times and the two winners fight for the right to face Oracle Team USA in the final.

The finale is the 13-race America's Cup match which begins on 17 June.

Is it exciting?

The last America's Cup produced one of sport's greatest ever comebacks as the Oracle Team USA recovered from 8-1 down against New Zealand to win 9-8.

Ainslie joined the US team midway through the series and essentially took control, becoming critical to the comeback. He "galvanised Team Oracle and his voice became dominant. Race by race, win after win, the gap closed and an arcane competition was brought to vivid life", says The Guardian.

This year, Ainslie has his own team, while the US are still led by Australian Jimmy Spithill, the man many believe was usurped by the Brit in 2013.

Sweden's team Artemis are skippered by Iain Percy, "Ainslie’s closest friend in sailing," adds the paper. It makes for plenty of human drama on and off the water.

What about the boats?

The cutting-edge catamarans are not like anything you are likely to have sailed in.

"Often likened to Formula 1 on water, the America’s Cup is as much a fundraising and constructors’ championship as it is a series of races," says the Guardian. "To compete this year, Ainslie had to scare up the princely sum of £90m to get his challenge off the ground and the chief executive of his team is Martin Whitmarsh, the former team principal of the McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 team."

The yachts are capable of speeds of up to 60mph and appear to fly over the water - literally.

"Hydrofoils, which perform the same function as an aerofoil used by aeroplanes, lift the vessels out of the water when travelling at top speed," says the Telegraph. "The design has changed the sport to such an extent that Oracle Skipper Jimmy Spithill obtained a private pilot’s licence to help him handle his boat when airborne."

The New Zealand boat is even equipped with bikes so the crew can use pedal power to control the trim of the sails.

How can I watch it?

The action gets underway at 9pm BST on Friday 26 May and the 23 days of racing will be shown live on BT Sport, with highlights on the BBC.

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