The first season of the SailGP finished last Sunday in Marseille with final victory going to the Australian team (Tom Slingsby) ahead of the Japanese led by Nathan Outteridge. Time for Tip & Shaft to carry out an appraisal of the F50 circuit launched by Larry Ellison/Russell Coutts.
Racing results: two divisions
This first season was clearly dominated by the Australian and Japanese teams with the advantage going to the Australians, who won four of the five legs and in particular the final event where there was a cheque of a million dollars for the winner. This was no big surprise as the majority of the sailors with the two teams had already raced on the AC50 in the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda. “We have been racing on these boats for four or five years in Bermuda, so all the teams with a veteran in a key post, such as helmsman, trimmer or tactician are bound to have an advantage,” confirmed Philippe Presti, coach for the Australian team. “We soon realised that there were two boats in the first division and four in the second division, but in the latter group, we were all fairly close to one another,” added Bruno Dubois, manager of the Chinese team, who just managed to make it to the final podium of the season ahead of the English, French and American teams.
However, according to some observers, the gap tended to get smaller as the season went on: “Out on the water, the difference is not that big, and I think that the performance curve for the Australians and Japanese will gradually stabilise, while the others continue to improve, » said Julien Di Biase, chief operating officer in the SailGP. That was confirmed by Philippe Presti: “The English sailors made a lot of progress, although did not manage to show that in the results, but they are quite close to us. In San Francisco, we got through to the final by just a point and in Cowes, they won the three training races. The Chinese have also made progress with changes to their crew. A wing trimmer with experience of the Cup joined them and you could immediately see the difference with their results.” For Bruno Dubois, “The English and American teams made a lot of progress early on, while we reorganised our crew, and later in the season, we managed to have a set of dry laps and we were making fewer mistakes. So we won a race with six boats cleanly.”
What can be done to narrow the gap between the two groups in 2020? “We are going to have to deal with that, as otherwise the competition will not last. We’ll be giving more time to train to the teams other than the Japanese and Australians,” replied Julien Di Biase. That already happened this year, as Tiphaine Turluche, who is now team manager for the French team explains: “We had an extra day in New York, four in Cowes, two in Marseille, and we should be getting a few weeks of training in New Zealand in January.”
Judging the organisation: events which attract the public, but partners need to be found
Julien Di Biase admits that as they tackled the first season of the SailGP, the organisers were going into the unknown, in particular concerning the reaction of the public for this circuit set up by Larry Ellison/Russell Coutts. How big were the crowds? “On average we had between 20,000 and 40,000 spectators, and in terms of ticket sales, between 500 and 2000 tickets a day. We didn’t want to get too ambitious, so we attempted to see the reaction from the market and adjust the offer to try to fill the sites. The goal for this first season wasn’t to achieve high volumes.”
As for the final leg of the season in Marseille, Stéphanie Nadin, the event director, talks about “16,000 people over the three days and around 4500 places sold,” with the offer being gradually adjusted. That was confirmed by Yannick Perrigot, head of the Disobey agency, who was in charge of promoting the event: “We talked a lot with the organisers and tried to make them understand that Marseille isn’t like Cannes or Saint-Tropez, and that we needed perhaps to cut the services to make it more popular and affordable. That’s why we ended up with tickets costing 25 euros.”
How much did the SailGP event cost? “4 million dollars“ (3.65 million euros), replied Julien Di Biase, funded entirely by SailGP. With six teams to fund (5 million dollars per team) and events to organise, the SailGP circuit thus costs Larry Ellison 50 million dollars a year. But ultimately, the goal is for drastic cuts in the investment, which is why they are looking for partners to support the circuit. Rolex, “for several million euros”, according to Julien Di Biase, was the first to sign up, followed by Land Rover and Oracle, Larry Ellison’s company. Ultimately, the six teams are going to have to find their own partners. How far have they got at the end of this first season? None of the teams has so far attracted partners other than suppliers.
The clock is ticking. If SailGP initially talked about a guarantee for five years, that no longer appears to be the case: “The pressure is on for the teams to find commercial partners quickly. It’s more than a goal; it’s something that is going to be a requirement. Those who can’t find the finding will disappear. Larry Ellison is a fan of sailing, but he hasn’t just set up SailGP for his own pleasure and he hopes that the circuit will stand on its own two feet,” confirmed Julien Di Biase. How much patience does the billionaire have? “Teams that have not found a partner by the end of next season will find it tough,” he replied.
2020: a new team and a leg in China?
The 2020 season will once again start in late February in Sydney. The other legs are to be announced shortly. “Ideally, we’ll be attempting to return to the same towns to build on the experience of this year and we’ll add China to that,” explained Julien Di Biase. That was confirmed by Bruno Dubois, team manager for the Chiense team: “We are currently working on organising a leg, but for the moment, we don’t know where.” Marseille is likely to host a leg again: “Everything is looking good and the City is keen, with all lights on green,” commented Stéphanie Nadin.
Another new venue next year could be Scandinavia, as there is the possibility of a seventh team from Sweden or Denmark according to our latest information, as a seventh F50 is being built at Core Builders in New Zealand. “Talks are ongoing, but nothing has so far been signed,” commented Julien Di Biase. “We’ll only include a new team if it is self-financed.” That means any new arrivals must find their own funding, with the goal being to have one new team and venue each year. “This year was the first step, but there is a long way to go. Our vision is to have ten teams and ten events. We want to make this the Formula E of the seas, but we’re not there yet,” concluded Julien Di Biase.