Départ de The Ocean Race à Alicante

Johan Salén: “We knew it would be complicated, but we never had doubts”

On Sunday five Imocas set off for the 14th edition of The Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread and Volvo Ocean Race), with the first of seven stages racing between Alicante and Cape Verde. At the same time, six VO65s started The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint Cup, a short format race comprising three stages. It is a good opportunity for Tip & Shaft to catch up with Johan Salén, co-owner of the race around the world.  

Along with Richard Brisius you bought The Ocean Race from Volvo (who remain the main partner) in June 2018, how do you feel when you look back on the past four and a half years?  
The feeling is that it has been a very, very long time (smiles) to make this transition – we had to change our name, partly change the race structure and the team, – then we met some great uncertainties between Covid and the war in Ukraine. But now that we are here, we can say that this is a very good start, we have a great race village, with a lot of people, about 200 journalists and the hospitality set ups are full. All of this makes it possible for us to forget the past four years very quickly. We are looking forwards. But it’s true that it has not been easy. I know there were rumours a year or two ago that the race would not take place at all, but we never felt that was the case. And anyway, even when everything is going well, having ups and downs is normal managing an event which, in itself, is very complex with many elements, between the teams, partners, cities, policies, the sustainability aspect. And of course, not everyone you work with has the same expectations and perspectives. It’s very interesting, but it’s not always easy to get everyone on the same page at the same time. But that was true, too, for our predecessors, if you talk to Knut (Frostad, former boss of the race) or others, they were burned out by the experience and subsequently changed their lives afterwards. But the fact that it’s difficult makes the moments when it works all the more satisfying. We love the period we are living today.

You say that some of your predecessors ended up “burned out”, are you not close to it today? With Richard did you ever think about throwing in the towel ?  
No, really it’s okay, the difference compared to previous editions where previously there was one CEO, like Knut or Mark Turner, who took care of everything. But I work together with Richard, and have done so for a very long time, it’s much easier to operate like that. For the past 14 months, we have even had a third person, Mirko Groeschner, who worked in the Cup before, so we have very complementary skills together in the management of the event. For example I’m not very involved in the operational part, the relations with cities, I’m more in touch with the teams and I’m working on the future of this race. But we never doubted that we were going to get here, we knew it would be complicated, but we are used to the uncertainties in this kind of event.

“We could have eight to ten
existing Imoca teams in four years” 

Five Imoca teams are at the start of this race of which the majority already existed with their main purpose being the Vendée Globe 2024, does this mean that the move to the Imoca has scared off some teams, especially those who were active in the last few editions on the event? 
I think the main problem as usual was sponsorship. On this edition, we have two transitions. The first was with the existing Imoca teams who were interested in the idea of moving towards a more international event. And I think that even if there are not so very many this time, it is all going in the right direction, several are present this weekend in Alicante and are super interested in the next one, especially since the additional cost [compared to a normal Imoca season, Editor’s note] to take part is not huge – it has been estimated, along with the class, to be between 1.5 and 4 million euros. That is a pretty exceptional model, because it’s not a huge budget for an incredible return. Even for a team that has a French sponsor, I think it’s a very good investment. My feeling today is that we could have eight to ten existing Imoca teams in four years, which would be a good base. The second transition is that with the more traditional teams from The Ocean Race to the Imoca class and a different business model. Several of them just did not manage to complete their financing, we hope that they will succeed for the next race. I am thinking of teams from Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, some who are now in the VO65 fleet, others who are not. Both these transitions are moving in the right direction, but it takes time.

Until recently some people were still talking about the Spanish team Mapfre, can you tell us more?  
There were two teams that were super close to signing, unfortunately it did not happen. I do not understand exactly what happened, we plan to discuss that a bit here with Pedro Campos’ Spanish team. The other team was a joint venture between a French team of Louis Burton and Servane Escoffier, and a Dutch one [from the former Brunel team; contacted by Tip & Shaft, Servane Escoffier confirmed, saying that the Dutch had “failed”, hence the abandonment of the project, Ed’s note].

You announced very late that the race would also be contested in the VO65 on a reduced, three stages format, the VO65 Sprint Cup, can you explain how this project came to fruition? 
This was not an easy decision. We had a group of six teams that wanted to participate in this edition but had not all completed their funding but told us that they should be ready to continue in four years time. If we hadn’t done anything the risk was they would lose their motivation to continue into Imoca, so this formula allows us to continue working with them for the future. The other thing is that for the cities that host The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint Cup and for the event as a whole, it’s better to have more boats. But overall it is a good example of the difficulties we have faced on this edition, there were so many different points of view, but in the end, it has worked outwell. And the choice of stages was dictated by the rules of World Sailing, some boats could not participate under OSR 0, which excluded part of the course, stages 1, 6, 7 can be run under OSR 1.

“A budget of between 80 and 90 million euros” 

Five prototype boats are at the start around the world, most not yet up to 100 per cent of their potential, do you have the impression that you are fighting the odds a bit, particularly thinking that if one or two give up, the interest will drop off ?  
Of course it’s a bit risky, but that has been the case before. I think that in one of the previous editions, there was only one boat at the finish into Itajai. That is clearly something we do not want, but we know that the risks are there, we cross our fingers that there is not too many breakages.

What is the budget of the event and how is it split? 
It is divided between the cities – with a significant investment by them to take care of stopovers, as it is here in Alicante -, a main sponsor, Volvo, and private partners, with different levels of commitment. It’s a bit tricky to give the details and the precise figure, but I would say that compared to the budget of the last edition as we have a few more partnership, this year’s is a little higher, but not far.

That is?
If you include everything, it’s about 80-90 million euros.

What will the next edition look like, and also the next The Ocean Race Europe which you launched in 2021, how is it shaping up?
What is quite clear is that the next round the world race will start in four years time, we do not yet know the stopover cities, apart from Alicante because it is already signed up. We also know that the duration will be similar to that of this year and that we will continue with the Imoca. We will also press on with The Ocean Race Europe, which we want to evolve. The idea is to do the next edition at the end of the summer 2025, starting in northern Europe, a duration of about six weeks going to six or seven cities and a finish in the Mediterranean. It will be in Imoca, we do not know yet if there will be another class.

And so definitively is this the last year for the VO65 this race? 
The boat is ten years old today, it will be fourteen in four years, so I think that for the round the world trip, this will be the last time, even if we have said this before. For The Ocean Race Europe in 2025, it is still possible.

Do you have any other plans for other races in the intervening periods?
We are discussing to do something in Asia, we are also thinking more about a crewed transatlantic in the long term, but for the moment nothing is set in stone.

Photo: Sailing Energy

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