Defending champion Oracle Team USA will race against challengers in early elimination rounds. It can build two 62-foot, wing-sailed foiling catamarans — insurance against a catastrophic failure — while challengers will be limited to one, a clause that’s sure to be controversial.
In another twist, either Oracle Team USA or a challenger could start the best-of-13 America’s Cup match with a one-point lead, depending on results from the qualifying rounds.
The 78-page protocol for the 35th America’s Cup was released Tuesday, more than seven months after Oracle Team USA staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports to beat Emirates Team New Zealand and retain the oldest trophy in international sports.
The rules were published even though organizers haven’t decided whether San Francisco, San Diego, Bermuda or Chicago will be the main venue. It’s expected that the early qualifying rounds will be held in a different venue than the challenger semifinals and finals, and America’s Cup match.
The new rules are designed to cut costs. The catamarans will be 10 feet shorter than before, requiring a crew of eight rather than 11, and smaller shore crews and design teams.
It’s not cheap to enter, though — that fee is $2 million, payable in two installments.
There could be six to eight challengers. Next Tuesday in Greenwich, Olympic star Ben Ainslie — who sailed for Oracle in the last cup — will launch a British challenge. Other teams are expected from New Zealand, Italy, Sweden, Australia and maybe China and France.
The challengers seem relieved the contentious rules-writing process is over. Jimmy Spithill, who has skippered Oracle Team USA to consecutive America’s Cup wins, said he’s excited with the way the early rounds, starting in 2015, are structured.
“This is the first time all of the racing beforehand counts,” Spithill said in a phone interview from San Francisco. “It’s meaningful racing. The whole way, there is always something on the line. To me that makes it way more compelling.”
Unlike in previous America’s Cup regattas, the defender will be allowed to sail against challengers in the elimination series. An America’s Cup World Series in 45-foot catamarans in 2015 and 2016 will be used to seed the America’s Cup Qualifiers, a double-round robin event. The winner of the qualifiers — whether it’s Oracle or a challenger — will get a bonus point in the America’s Cup match.
The top four challengers will race in the America’s Cup Playoffs — the semifinals and finals — with the winner facing Oracle in the match. However, the challenger that earns the bonus point for the America’s Cup match could be eliminated before reaching the ultimate round.
Owned by software tycoon Larry Ellison, Oracle Team USA started the last America’s Cup match with a two-point penalty for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas. After Team New Zealand reached match point, Oracle won the last eight races to keep the Auld Mug.
“I think there needs to be something on the line, something more compelling that’s worth fighting for,” Spithill said. “After starting the last match down two-nil, I’d rather sail from one ahead than two behind. From Day One it will be a fight because teams want to start that match one point ahead.”
Oracle will be allowed to build two 62-foot cats. It can conduct two-boat training during the America’s Cup Playoffs for the challengers, but then must sail its first boat in the match. If there’s a catastrophic failure, it can use its second boat in the match. If the winner of the challenger series has a serious breakdown and can’t sail in the match, the runner-up will advance.
“This was quite a big argument,” said Iain Murray, who heads Team Australia, the Challenger of Record that helped set the rules.
Murray said the challengers are just happy to have rules so they can raise money and go sailing.
“I’m sure there are some things people probably would prefer would be different, and there are a lot of things that are going to be quite new,” Murray said from Australia. “The event’s changed a lot in a short period of time. There are probably a lot of different circumstances going forward in this event.”
New nationality rules require two of the eight crew on the 62-footers and one of the five crew on the 45-footers be from the home country of a team’s backing yacht club. Oracle Team USA began the last America’s Cup with two of 11 sailors from the United States and finished with just one.