Last night I went to a dinner in London hosted by Ben Ainslie Racing and its sponsor Land Rover, a first chance in a while to meet up with former McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh and to meet Sir Ben, Britain’s greatest sailor.
The interest for me was to find out how much F1 technology and know-how is going into the UK’s America’s Cup boat and team. Four time Olympic gold medallist Ainslie is a big fan of F1 and motor sport in general. He was a passenger in last year’s Race of Champions event at London’s Olympic Park with the eventual ROC champion Sebastian Vettel.
He met Whitmarsh through David Richards, whose Prodrive engineering company produces a lot of the control systems on the boat. After Whitmarsh was ousted by Ron Dennis as McLaren boss, he became CEO of Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) and heads the Portsmouth based operation, which has a budget of £80 million to try to win the America’s Cup back from the US team Oracle next year. Ironically Ainslie was the skipper of the Oracle boat last time when it won the Cup, now he’s trying to beat his old boss Larry Ellison.
America’s Cup boats are to sailing boats what F1 cars are to road going saloons. They are catamarans, but sail on only the tips of the hydrofoils and only go quickly when they are in a state the sailors call ‘flying’.
This can go wrong, as the photo above shows.
The crew is made up of six sailors, four of them winching and powering the hydraulics, one doing tactics and the other steering. The sail is rigid and is called a ‘wing’ it is 71 ft high and is basically the engine of the boat, providing the power to make the boat travel at speeds of over 50mph.
Like F1 cars, the boats are constantly being developed, but there is no equivalent of the FIA; the rules are made by the cup holders and it is a winner takes all event. If Ainslie and Whitmarsh win the cup, then they will have the commercial rights to the next event, the right to sell host venue for a fee and all rights to commercialise the cup.
I asked about Adrian Newey and his involvement. It seems that Newey has dipped in and out of the project, when his Red Bull Racing F1 commitments permit. He’s added a lot of value with his inputs, apparently, but Red Bull’s problems in 2015 meant that he couldn’t give as much time as the team would have liked.
Meanwhile one of Lewis Hamilton’s former McLaren engineers, Richard Hopkirk, has joined the Ainslie team as Head of Systems and Analysis and brings F1 expertise. Hopkirk (above) worked with Hamilton as the voice in his ear from 2007 for three seasons, including his title year 2008. There is a lot of common ground on aerodynamics, hydraulic systems, data capture and processing, telemetry, communication systems and electronics. They also use CFD and similar simulation tools to F1.
“In the past we tried to do a lot of this in house and we lost a huge amount of time because the systems didn’t work properly, so we couldn’t test the boat,” said Ainslie. “I felt we needed to outsource a lot of this and get expertise we don’t have in the marine industry. So we turned to the automotive industry and I got to know David Richards at Prodrive. He has been very supportive of the project. David suggested Martin to take some of the burden off me.
“The boat has to lift out of the water and then it’s about the aerodynamics and control systems and how we control the dagger boards which lift us out of the water and the wing that produces the power. Now looking at other teams I can see them branching out to other industries to get support.”
Ainslie cuts an impressive figure, slight and athletic, he has the intense gaze of a champion sportsman, but with a refreshing humility.
This year the team is building up to the main challenge of the America’s Cup with events in the US, Japan, France and the UK. The final boat will be launched on December 27th in Bermuda, where the final America’s cup races will take place.
Whitmarsh is thoroughly enjoying the new challenge. He says is in no hurry to step back into F1 to offer comment on the current situation in the sport, particularly the problems for his old team, despite offers from both SKY and Channel 4. He has been asked by other F1 teams about his availability but has no desire to race against his old team McLaren.
If he wins the America’s Cup with Ainslie, who is already Sir Ben, he may well find himself getting a knighthood, before his old boss Ron Dennis, but for now he’s focussed on giving Ainslie the boat and the team to win the Cup and on executing a perfect campaign.
We’ve been invited to go down to Portsmouth soon to investigate the project further.