Near-perfect Kiwis take control of America's Cup qualifiers

A mad dash around the turquoise waters of Bermuda's Great Sound by heavyweights Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA on Saturday could have a major impact on the 35th America's Cup match that starts in two weeks.

If two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA gets its 50-foot, foiling catamaran across the finish line first, it will carry one bonus point into the first-to-seven match that starts on June 17.

If the Kiwis beat Oracle and then make it through the challenger semifinals and finals, they will take a bonus point into the match.

It figures that the new-look qualifiers would come down to a showdown between the two powerhouse rivals that will forever be linked by the epic 2013 America's Cup. Oracle - skippered by Australian Jimmy Spithill and owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison - staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports by winning eight straight races to rally from an 8-1 deficit and retain the Auld Mug. It was a gut-wrenching collapse for the Kiwis, who sacked skipper Dean Barker and rebuilt their team around 26-year-old helmsman Peter Burling, an Olympic gold and silver medalist.

And perhaps it's only fitting that this Americas Cup is being sailed on the northern tip of the Bermuda Triangle, because it doesn't look like any previous edition in the regatta's 166-year history.

In one of the many radical departures from tradition, this is the first time the defender has sailed against challengers in the preliminaries. The bonus point is another new twist.

Letting the defender sail against the challengers has made it ''way more compelling and let's face it, there's something worth fighting for,'' Spithill said. ''That race tomorrow between the Kiwis and us, that's the bonus point. So I think it's worked.''

Saturday's matchup was made more compelling by Friday's results in round robin two.

Emirates Team New Zealand was nearly perfect in winning two races to jump to 8 points in the qualifiers, one more than Oracle.

With Burling calmly steering the fast catamaran, the Kiwis became the first crew to sail around the seven-leg course entirely on hydrofoils, with the hulls never touching the water until just after the finish line. That came in a 4:06 whitewashing of Groupama Team France, which was eliminated with one race to sail.

The Kiwis also beat SoftBank Team Japan by 51 seconds, staying on their foils 99.6 percent of the time.

Oracle, meanwhile, had to quickly fix a broken rudder before its race against Artemis Racing of Sweden. Oracle made it onto the course in time but lost to Artemis by 24 seconds.

''It's great we have an opportunity to race with a bit more pressure tomorrow,'' Burling said. ''That's what we're excited about. We really enjoy those opportunities to put ourselves under a bit more pressure and learn from it.''

In the first round robin, Oracle beat Team New Zealand by six seconds. There were two lead changes, including Oracle sailing into the lead going onto the sixth leg.

Oracle has two races Saturday, the final day of the second round robin, and the Kiwis just one. If Oracle beats the Kiwis, it would clinch the bonus point on a tiebreaker based on standings in the America's Cup World Series the last two years. Oracle came into these qualifiers with a one-point bonus for finishing second in the ACWS. Britain's Land Rover BAR brought in two bonus points for leading the ACWS standings.

Oracle will sail against Land Rover BAR in the fourth and final race Saturday.

If the Kiwis beat Oracle on Saturday and don't make it through to the match, there will be no bonus point.

That seems highly unlikely, though. The Kiwis have looked strong, with their only loss so far coming to Oracle. They've clinched the top seed for the semifinals, which start Sunday.

After Saturday, Oracle will train on its own while the challengers sail their semifinals and finals. Team New Zealand gets to pick its opponent for the semis.

Artemis, looking good in breezy conditions, also beat SoftBank Team Japan by 18 seconds. Artemis sits fourth, with four points, behind Land Rover BAR with five. SoftBank Team Japan has three points and Team France, two. The British were off Friday.

---

Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.