F1 on the water: How Ben Ainslie and Land Rover BAR plan to win the America’s Cup
“It’s like Formula 1 on water,” Sir Ben Ainslie explains. Ainslie is talking about the America’s Cup, a sailing race started by the British in 1851, and remarkably never won by them since.
Pocket-lint has travelled to Bermuda, the location of the 35th America’s Cup, and base camp for the five competing teams hoping to beat the last winners and the dominant team in recent history, Oracle Team USA. The America’s Cup – named after the first winning boat rather than the county – has, ironically, been dominated by the USA throughout its history, something that Ainslie is looking to change.
The four-time Olympic Gold medal-winning sailor is used to racing solo, but in the America’s Cup, he isn’t doing this on his own. This time he has help.
That help comes in the guise a 107-man support team including 12 other sailors, an army of engineers, £90m from backers that include Sir Charles Dunstone (co-founder and former chairman of Carphone Warehouse amongst other techy accolades), and sponsors like Land Rover who bring all its technical engineering prowess to the party.
“It’s fascinating being on these boats, we’re really enjoying the technology that the boats are giving us,” Ainslie tell us. “Technology has revolutionised the sport,” continues the man who helped Oracle Team USA win in the previous race in 2013.
The boats themselves are a technological marvel, sitting at the pinnacle of boat racing. Called foiling catamarans, the craft’s twin carbon fibre hulls lift out of the water when moving to reduce drag and give you as much speed through the course as possible.
Just like in Formula 1, there are strict rules as to what teams can and can’t do, but they do have room to manoeuvre in certain areas like the sails and the design of the foils that remain in the water. Get those bits right and you win, get it wrong and you’ll be going home without making it through the qualifiers.
With such a strong focus on the design and engineering elements it is easy to see the comparison to Formula 1.
The Land Rover BAR boat has 190 sensors that collect data from 350 different data points that in turn relay over 16,000MB of data per sailing session back to base camp and the company’s HQ half way around the world away in Portsmouth.
Land Rover BAR
The information is captured, analysed returned back to the boat in real time for use by the team on a number of tablets and screens as they race. It means that at any given moment Giles Scott, the boat’s tactician, not only knows exactly where the boat is on the course, but how many seconds it will take him to get to the next buoy or the finish line.
Using machine learning algorithms, the sailors can use the data to help better understand the factors that create both optimal speed, and the “perfect” manoeuvre on the course, allowing Ainslie and his crew to gain vital seconds in the numerous races in the cup. When the races only last about 20 minutes, every second counts.
“The computer could fly the boat perfectly, but the rules won’t let us do that,” explains Nick Hutton, the team’s trimmer. The notion of flying a boat might seem strange until you see it in action.
Scott, who’s main control panel is a customised Sony Xperia tablet with dedicated software, has the same story to tell: “They could pretty much sail themselves. It’s getting very close to that, but I think that the rules will change to stop that happening.”
Land Rover BAR
Similar to running watches that provide you a ghost runner to race against, the software creates a “virtual race boat” that takes all the data available and suggests the top achievable speed or the best trim angle given the weather and water conditions at that moment. It is then the team’s job to determine whether that’s something they want or need to match.
“It [the data] is about helping me create shortcuts to a lot of time consuming data elements,” explains Scott. The value in all this technology, the gold-winning Olympic sailor tells us, is not about the data telling him things he doesn’t know, but helping him get the answer quicker.
Hutton and Scott’s comments are a recurring theme throughout the teammates we talk to. It’s clear that the technology is far more capable than the rules allow, but striking that balance between how much the boat can do, and how much the sailor should do, is important for the sport to stay not only relevant, but interesting.
Land Rover BAR
Hoping to give Ainslie the edge over the other teams is a newly designed steering wheel, which for the first time, will allow Ainslie to both steer and control the lift of the foils on the boat with ease. “The wheel is hopefully going to make my life easier,” explains Ainslie.
The wheel is designed by Land Rovers Human Factors design team specifically to Ainslie’s requirements and allows skipper and team principal Ainslie to “fly” by adjusting the boat’s hydrofoils with greater precision for the fastest possible racing. He can lift R1, Land Rover BAR’s 2.4-tonne race boat, out of the water with a flick of his fingertips.
Just as an aerofoil helps an aircraft into the sky, hydrofoils lift a boat out of the water. The Land Rover steering wheel turns the boat left and right as it would on a car, while the shift paddles control its height above the water by controlling the lift from the foils, with that height being monitored by more sensors. Land Rover’s Human Machine Interface engineers spent 18 months developing the wheel.
Land Rover BAR
The days of six crew in a boat with a couple of sails, has long passed. Today’s 50ft long boats fly through the air at speeds of up to 50 knots (approx. 57mph) and are aerodynamically tuned.
“If you took the same level of change in F1 as we’ve seen in sailing, those same F1 cars would be breaking the sound barrier,” Dirk Kramers, Head of Engineering tells Pocket-lint.
But with better technology comes a better understanding of what is possible and the team’s strong acceptance of technology is no doubt down to Land Rover BAR’s CEO, former McLaren Racing boss, Martin Whitmarsh. It’s no wonder the comparisons with Formula 1 are clear to be seen everywhere.
Land Rover BAR
From the data mining, to the strong engineering design focus, to the speed. The only thing missing from the boatshed workshops are the pristine floors you see in F1 pit lanes.
“I couldn’t have imagined a boat like this 25 years ago. Really only in the last 5 years have we’ve seen the technology coming on in leaps and bounds,” adds Ainslie. “The speeds, the forces, the technology, you feel like a pilot or an F1 driver. If you make one mistake you’ll crash out.”
Bermuda is the home to the 35th America’s Cup, with the racing starting on 26 May and you can be sure that Ainslie and the team have their eyes firmly on the prize in one of sport’s oldest competitions.