Teams and drivers are predicting one of the most hotly contested weekends in SailGP history when racing gets underway at the inaugural Dubai event on Saturday.
With five events remaining, the third season of SailGP is heading into the home stretch and jostling for points on the overall leaderboard is more important than ever.
After seven events this season Australia (50) holds the lead in the championship by four points over New Zealand (46), with France (41) currently occupying the final spot in the coveted top three that will make the Grand Final in San Francisco.
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But just 10 points separate New Zealand in second and Denmark in sixth, meaning this weekend will prove a crucial event for the mid-fleet teams contending for a podium position.
SailGP’s first ever event in the Middle East is shaping up to be a frenetic one and the team drivers are expecting chaos to reign supreme on the commercial harbour of Port Rashid — the tightest racecourse on the SailGP calendar.
Relatively light winds are forecast for the weekend and teams are aiming to find clear air on a racecourse where making a fast start and staying out of trouble will be crucial.
“I’m finding it’s a little bit less looking for wind,” Australia’s skipper Tom Slingsby said at Friday’s press conference.
“Looking for extra (air) pressure because it’s such an even race track. It seems like the pressure’s pretty even over the course and it turns into more of a positioning type of race.
“The start and mark 1 is going to be more important than normal. It’s kind of like your equivalent to a street track in F1 where whoever gets off cleanly and is out in front is pretty hard to overtake.
“It’s one of those tracks. It’s really positioning, your start, and being able to find clean lanes in a super tight race track if you’re back in the pack. That’s going to be really important to moving through the race.”
The condensed nature of the Dubai racecourse means the nine F50s in the fleet will have to navigate carefully to avoid any crashes.
“We saw them doing some warm up laps yesterday and it was taking them about under 30 seconds to get from Mark 1 down to the bottom gate,” Slingsby said.
“That was a bit daunting. It’s very tight. And if we get a breeze — from what I hear the forecast on Sunday has increased quite a lot. We saw some 16 to 18 knots of wind.
“In this tight race track it’s going to be a handful. It will be exciting for you guys but scary for us.”
“It’s going to be really tight,” Great Britain’s driver Ben Ainslie said.
“It’s going to be incredibly exciting for both the competitors and the spectators. It’ll all come down to really tight boat-on-boat manoeuvres and on such a tight racecourse, trying to get separation from the other boats because if you’re alongside too many other boats you’ll slow each other down.
“So the boats that can separate and find some space will probably be the ones that do quite well.”
Team USA’s Jimmy Spithill said: “All the teams can win a race weekend so it really is just trying to avoid the carnage out there. On a race track like this, anything can happen.”
“The racetrack is very good,” Switzerland’s Sebastian Schneiter added.
“The fans can almost high-five us. This event could go down in SailGP history as one of the best for fans.”
Canada’s driver Phil Robertson was licking his lips at the prospect of boats racing shoulder to shoulder.
“I don’t mind a dogfight,” he said.
“Put me in the ring and I’m going to swing. On a tight racecourse like this it’s definitely an attitude you’ve got to have. It’s going to fun. This racecourse is tight, it’s small, it’s something we experienced before.”
Team Australia won two of the practice races on Friday and will be the team to beat, while Spain put on a clinic to win the final practice race.
Having won the first two seasons of SailGP, the Aussies are the hunted and teams want the chance to knock them off their perch at the season finale in San Francisco.
“We’re aiming for the season final,” New Zealand’s driver Peter Burling said.
“We want to try and stop Tom winning one and we’re really looking forward to trying to improve this weekend.”
Robertson added: “I actually don’t think the series is anywhere near complete. We’ve got five more events, that’s a lot of points and we’re going to fight for every single one of those.”
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