Heroes, heartbreak and humiliation: A short history of America’s Cup Challenger semi finals

On the eve of the Prada Cup elimination series between Luna Rossa and American Magic, Michael Burgess looks back on the best moments from almost 40 years of challenger semi final contests in the America’s Cup.

1987 – KZ7 sees off cheeky French Kiss

The explosion of interest following Australia II’s snaring of the Auld Mug in 1983, which prompted 13 syndicates to come to Freemantle, meant a traditional last four stage was added to the mix.

The fondly remembered KZ7 ‘plastic fantastic’ was imperious in the round robin phase – with a 33-1 record – and continued that form in the semi-finals, sweeping the series against fourth qualifier French Kiss 4-0, with an average margin of 2 minutes 43 seconds.

Victory was particularly sweet, given the European syndicate had threatened to seek a restraining order from the New York Supreme court earlier in the regatta over the legitimacy of KZ7’s fibreglass hull.

The boat had been cleared twice by the international jury, but the French protested again at the start of the first race of the semi-final series about KZ7’s compliance, which was overturned.

Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes beat Tom Blackaller’s USA 4-0 on the other side of the draw, in what was a closer contest than the scoreline suggests.

1995 – The beginning of a legend

The first Team New Zealand challenge and still the benchmark.

Black Magic was unstoppable in the round robin phase, dropping only one race (to One Australia) in a preliminary competition that stretched on for almost two months.

They remained superior in the semi-final, which were also a round robin system, with the luxury of forfeiting their final two races, after they had secured top spot.

All but one of their races in the semi final stage was decided by a margin of more than a minute, and only once did they trail during a race.

Fourth qualifier Nippon struggled – losing 11 from 11 – so the other spot was fought out between Chris Dickson’s Tag Heuer and One Australia.

The pivotal race came on the eighth day, with the Australians (helmed by Rod Davis) prevailing by 1:39.

2017 – The nosedive that stopped a nation

After San Francisco in 2013 this was a return to a more traditional format, as the top four challengers were paired off in best of nine deciders.

Team New Zealand’s only defeats before the semi finals were against the defender Oracle, whose inclusion in round robin phase was a bizarre and highly unpopular innovation.

As the top ranked team, the Kiwis choose Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR as their opponents, with Dean Barker’s Softbank Team Japan and Artemis Racing contesting the other semi-final.

That phase of the regatta is principally remembered for Team New Zealand’s dramatic nosedive during the first leg of race four, after the Kiwi syndicate had taken the first three races. In winds gusting close to the 24-knot limit, Aotearoa splashed down violently, tipping past the vertical.

There were concerns for the viability of the one boat campaign, but Team New Zealand somehow rebuilt and restored the catamaran in 48 hours.

When racing returned, the teams split the first two races before Peter Burling produced his best performance yet; outpointing Ainslie from the start to open up a 500 metre advantage that was never headed, for a 39 second victory to wrap up the series 5-2.

The other semi final was tighter, with Softbank Team Japan springing to a 3-1 lead, before Artemis won the last four races to take the series 5-3.

2007 The `Pitbull’ roars

A series notable for the emergence of Jimmy Spithill on the world stage. He had helmed Young Australia as a 19-year-old in 2000, and was on the One World boat three years later.

Patrizio Bertelli saw potential and talent in the Sydneysider, installing him as helmsman of Luna Rossa for the campaign in Valencia.

It proved an inspired choice, as the Italians finished third in the round robin series, just behind Team New Zealand and BMW Oracle, with the local challenge Desafio Espanol in fourth.

Luna Rossa had lost both of their round robin contests to Oracle, but Spithill came to the fore in the knockout stages.

He was particularly aggressive in the pre-start manoeuvres – earning the nickname `Pitbull’ – from the awed commentators and completely outfoxed Chris Dickson on Oracle.

In one memorable race he forced two penalties on Oracle before the start with some stunning tactics, and Dickson was replaced by Larry Ellison with the scoreline at 1-4, though the change was immaterial as Luna Rossa won the next race to clinch the series.

In the other semi-final Desafio thrilled local fans with some bright moments but Dean Barker and NZL92 always looked a clip ahead, winning four of the first five races and eventually progressing 5-2.

2003 The `Swiss Kiwis’ prevail

After a compelling round robin phase, with quarter finals and repechage chucked in for good measure, Alinghi (Russell Coutts), BMW Oracle (Peter Holmberg), One World (Peter Gilmour) and Prada Challenge (Francesco de Angelis) were the final four syndicates, from an original field of nine.

Alinghi’s combination of an all-star crew – with Coutts, Brad Butterworth and several other key former Team New Zealand members – and a well designed boat were too much for Oracle, with the Americans vanquished 4-0.

The second semi-final was much closer, with One World prevailing 4-2 over the Italians. But Oracle got another bite and swept their compatriots 4-0 in the repechage to reach the Louis Vuitton decider against the `Swiss Kiwis’.

2000 – The emergence of Prada

A new millennium, a new home for the Cup and a new force from Italy. From 11 challenging syndicates, six progressed into the semi-final knock out stage, headed by Prada Challenge, the first appearance of Patrizio Bertelli’s syndicate.

Three American teams qualified, from a total of five from the United States, as well as Nippon Challenge and France’s Le Defi BTT.

The semi-final series was dominated by three teams.

Paul Cayard America’s One finished on top – with eight wins from 10 races – just ahead of Prada (seven victories), who qualified for the Louis Vuitton Cup final at their first attempt, progressing ahead of Conner’s Stars and Stripes on a tie break.

1983 – Alan Bond makes his mark, while Canadians end extended absence.

The first Challenger semi-finals were a strange beast. From seven syndicates in the preliminary stages, the top four teams advanced – and proceeded to race against each other in another round robin sequence.

Alan Bond’s Australia II (eight wins from nine races) and British challenge Victory ’83 (six wins) progressed to the decider at the expense of Azzurra and Canada, which was the first challenge from the North American country for more than a century.

1992 Japan soars – for a while

Japan’s Nippon Challenge, helmed by Chris Dickson, were the surprise packet in San Diego, finishing top of the round robin phase, ahead of the Michael Fay’s New Zealand Challenge, II Moro di Venezia (Italy) and French syndicate Le Defi Francais 95.

But the Asian team fell away in the semi-final stage, which was a round robin system, with each team facing its competitors three times.

NZL20, skippered by Rod Davis, only dropped two races of nine and the Italians (five wins) were the others to qualify for the Challenger final.

2013 Luna Rossa trumps wounded Artemis

After high hopes, this Louis Vuitton Cup was a major anti-climax. Indeed, Team New Zealand’s lack of competition during the challenger series is often cited as a factor in their eventual Cup loss to Oracle, as they didn’t experience the hard racing required.

From initial forecasts of up to 10 syndicates in San Francisco, only three made the start line, with Team Korea the last to withdraw.

Swedish challenge Artemis Racing didn’t participate in the round robin, due to the damage sustained in a tragic capsize in training, which also claimed the life of experienced British sailor Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson.

It meant there were only four legitimate two-boat contests in the preliminary stages, and Luna Rossa finished outside the maximum time limit in two of them.

The semi-final series between Luna Rossa and Artemis was a one sided affair; the closest margin was 1:18 and the other three races saw deltas of more than two minutes, a huge gap in the lightning quick AC72’s.

Heading into the Cup racing?

• Be aware that traffic will be busy, and parking will be very limited.

• Give yourself plenty of time and think about catching a ferry, train or bus instead.

• Make sure your AT HOP card is in your pocket. It’s the best way to ride to the Cup.

• For more ways to enjoy race day, visit at.govt.nz/americascup.

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