GLOBETROTTER

On the waterfront

 

 

On a sunny day, Albert Park is the place to be. The gardens are right next to the university and when the sun comes out lithe 18 year-olds appear from nowhere to catch a few rays. The girls are nubile, the boys buzzing around them like flies. There is Government House, a fountain, a few old cannons and a couple of those modern sculptures which would look out of place wherever you put them.

Albert Park, Auckland, does not have much in common with its cousin in Melbourne but it is a pleasant place to stroll around after a good lunch down on the waterfront.

Returning to Europe between the first two races of the 2002 Formula 1 season did not seem to make a lot of sense and as sitting around on beaches is not that enthralling an occupation Auckland seemed like a good compromise: catching up with some old friends; free accommodation, and, on top of all that, 15 years since my last visit to New Zealand.

Auckland calls itself "The City of Sails" and when you look out across the harbor you can see why. Since 1995 when the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron won the America's Cup with a boat called Black Magic, Auckland has been the home of the America's Cup yacht race.

Any yacht club in the world can challenge for the Cup if it has the money, so long as it holds regattas on water that is an inlet of the sea. This means it is open to more or less anyone. A few years back Bernie Ecclestone, Marco Piccinini (a former Ferrari team director who is now Deputy President of the FIA) and some friends - including the King of Greece - established the Gstaad Yacht Club in landlocked Switzerland. It was a bit of a joke as its home base was the swimming pool at the Palace Hotel in Gstaad, which is not really big enough for sailing competitions. But nowadays the holds a regatta every year in Monte Carlo and so could one day challenge for the Cup if Bernie felt the urge to stick his hand in his piggy bank. The budget for a top yacht racing syndicate is around $100m over three years and that is small change for a billionaire these days.

Formula 1 and the America's Cup have a lot in common: in terms of sponsors, money, technology, attitudes and the egos of the big players. There are lots of crossovers, not least in the marketing where a company called "Travel and More" is applying some F1 ideas in the world of sailing. This is run by Tom Ehman, who was in charge of West's sponsorship of McLaren in the early days and nowadays runs a quietly successful VIP entertainment company in F1 circles, looking after the big cheeses, booking flights, getting the best hotels and delivering the VIPs to the door of the Paddock Club.

Ehman is now trying to do for the America's Cup what Allsport Management has done for F1. The "Paddock Club" will be replaced by "The Base Club" but the concept is the same - giving VIP guests a good time around the racing scene with the sponsors paying for it.

Formula 1 and the America's Cup have been exchanging ideas for a while now. Back in 1984, let us not forget, the first Italian challenge for the Cup was staged by the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda: the Azzurra syndicate was organized by a man called Luca di Montzemolo. Today's Italian challenger is Prada, with a team which includes Piccinini, and Francesco Longanesi, the FIA head of external affairs and a well-known yachtsman. Until recently Piccinini was head of an organization which is a bit like FOCA for yacht racers - a union for competitors - and had not one but two former F1 team managers running his operations for him: Pierpaolo Gardella (formerly of Ferrari and Scuderia Italia) and Suzanne Radbone (Team Lotus), one of only two women to have ever been a F1 team manager.

Yachting is a complicated business because the America's Cup is not one event but two. There is a battle to decide who will become The Challenger (this is a competition called The Louis Vuitton Cup) and then once a winner has emerged they go on to do battle for the America's Cup itself with The Defender (which is currently Team New Zealand). This year there are 10 syndicates lining up to challenge for The Louis Vuitton Cup. That competition begins on October 1. The identity of The Challenger will not be established until the middle of January 2003 and then The America's Cup competition will take place a year from now in Hauraki Gulf, just outside Auckland harbor.

Down along Halsey Street in Auckland is what they call "Syndicate Row", where the team bases are lined up along a dock like an overscale pitlane. Security is insane. The secrets of aquadynamics (the shape of the keel) is all important and if a boat leaves the water it is always modestly surrounded by skirts to hide the secrets beneath.

It was interesting when I was in Auckland to see how many people were keen to know about the assets of Prost Grand Prix. The technical skills needed in F1 and the America's Cup are the same: the boats need composite designers and laminators; and they need fluid dynamicists. Aerodynamicists and aquadynamicists are basically in the same business and it is fair to say that the America's Cup provided F1 with its first computational fluid dynamicist when Geoff Willis, now technical director of BAR, moved from yacht racing to Leyton House after spending three years working for the British America's Cup challenge in San Diego in 1990.

There are also motor racing links inside Team New Zealand as its press officer is Murray Taylor is a Kiwi who ran a highly successful Formula 3 team in Britain in the early 1980s - and for a while was Eddie Jordan's biggest rival. Murray headed home in the mid 1980s and has been in yacht racing ever since.

And visiting Halsey Street you can see why. It is an enjoyable lifestyle, even if Auckland is not the liveliest place on the planet: messing about on boats, having dinners at yacht clubs and enjoying a bit of sunshine was a splendid idea - and finding out about how another sport worked was an interesting experience.

And an object lesson.

Bernie Ecclestone may have his critics but he has built an extraordinary sport from a rag-tag assortment of competing teams in F1. Yacht racing has the kind of structure that existed before Ecclestone banged everyone's heads together in F1. As there are two competitions there are two parallel sets of television deals, sponsorships, media operations and so on.

Looking around Auckland one can see how much the Cup has brought to the city. But the city is paying nothing to the sport. The winner takes all, including the right to organize the next Cup and choose the next venue. The rules have been the same since the Flintstones won the Cup.

Sitting down in the yacht basin having lunch one could not help but wonder if there might be a better way to organize yacht racing.

And to ponder how lucky motor racing has been to have had Mr. E.

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