Exactly 21 years ago, a boat named Luna Rossa – the red moon – set two nations alight.

Three million Italians – many probably unable to tell a tack from a gybe, or a boom vang from a grinding pedestal – watched sailing on television in the middle of cold European winter nights. Many rose at 2am to crowd into bars and restaurants and watch the silver hull of Luna Rossa slicing through the waters of the Hauraki Gulf, over 18,000km away.

In Naples – the home city of the boat’s skipper Francesco De Angelis – people danced and sang in the streets just before dawn when the Italians beat AmericaOne, 5-4, for the right to challenge Team New Zealand for the America’s Cup. It was the kind of flag-waving “tifo” (crazy support) usually reserved for football; certainly, never sailing – a truly minority sport.

New Zealanders loved the Italians too. Of the 11 challengers who raced in the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series in Auckland in 2000, it was the stylish, amicable and talented Prada sailors who stole the hearts of Aucklanders.

How times have changed.

Italy is under a strict nightly curfew so fans cannot leave their homes to watch racing; the defender and the Italian Challenger of Record have fallen out of friendship – over everything from the racecourse to the boats and the media; and Luna Rossa is clinging on to survival in the challenger series now named after their principal backer. They are the team in this America’s Cup who have, surprisingly, yet to set the world alight.

Could it be this rekindled affair with the Cup – Prada’s sixth Cup campaign – is but a fleeting relazione amorosa?

The Prada team, on Luna Rossa, win their very first race of the 2000 America’s Cup vs the Swiss Fast 2000. Photo: Getty Images. 

Back in 2000, in Prada’s introduction to the America’s Cup, they were the top boat at the end of the round-robins.

This time, after an abridged round robin series, the Luna Rossa Pirelli Prada team finished middle of the pack – well, second of three challengers. (That’s one place ahead of the shattered Americans who failed to finish, but say they will be ready to race their patched-up boat again in the semifinals starting on Friday).

The Italian team are once again in Auckland in force. The wives, partners and children of Luna Rossa seem to fill half the crowd in front of the America’s Cup village big screen on race days; the kids counting down in Italian at the start of the race. But there is still no sign of the the team boss, Patrizio Bertelli – back in Italy running the Prada luxury empire. 

So far in Italy, they’re still mad about the America’s Cup, says Gian Luca Pasini – a long-time sailing reporter for La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s famous daily sports newspaper printed on pink paper.

“It’s quite incredible,” Pasini says from Milan. “People still love this game a lot.”

They still don’t care much for the technical aspects of sailing, he says. It doesn’t bother them that there are two helmsmen driving their boat – which continues to perplex the sailing fraternity. And they show little interest in other sailors, like Giancarlo Pedote – the Italian solo round-the-world sailor, currently in sixth place in the Vendee Globe, closing in on the finish in France.

“But they still love the America’s Cup and Luna Rossa. It is just about passion,” Pasini says.

Passionate Luna Rossa supporters out on the Hauraki Gulf during the Prada Cup round robins. Photo: COR36 | Studio Borlenghi

Of course, no one goes to bars and restaurants at 3am to watch these new foiling monohulls, the AC75s. There’s a Covid-19 curfew in place from 10pm to 5am; and the very few pubs and eateries able to open must close at 6pm. With 85,000 Covid deaths in Italy, the state of emergency has been extended until the end of April.

But they’re watching from home: national television network RAI and Sky are broadcasting the races and are “very happy about the audience”, Pasini says. De Angelis is now a race commentator for RAI. Newspaper reporters stuck in Italy are still covering the racing.

“The current Luna Rossa, a parody of the mythical one of 2000, is by far the worst of the three boats” – an Italian sailing fan.

While the speed and excitement of the flying AC75s may have grabbed the Italian public’s imagination, Luna Rossa were only just beginning to live up to expectations on Saturday. In the do-or-die showdown with Sir Ben Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK, the race came down to a heart-stopping controversial final cross close to the finishline; the protesting Italians narrowly coming off second best.

There’s now “a bit of fear” back in Italy, Pasini says, that the sleek black-hulled Luna Rossa could be the first boat sent home from Auckland.

The first-to-four semifinal, better described as a repechage, will find the other Prada Cup finalist to race the yet-to-be-beaten Brits.

“Naturally now the fans are starting to be a little afraid of what can happen,” Pasini says. “We built the boat for little wind – 6.5 to 11-12 knots – and they never changed their mind.”  Light airs are what they envisage for the America’s Cup match in March. “After the first round robin, I think everyone was sure that Luna Rossa would be in the semifinal.”

Francesco Bruni, who shares the helm of Luna Rossa with Australian Jimmy Spithill. Photo: COR36 | Studio Borlenghi.

The boat was at times sluggish in the first two rounds, but their veteran helmsman Francesco Bruni was happy with the physical changes they’d made to it in the five days between races. It was human error – two bad tacks – not a lack of boat speed, that eventually cost Luna Rossa on Saturday. 

They were competitive – the lead changing nine times; Ainslie calling it one of the best races he’d ever been in. It was certainly the closest race we’ve seen these super-slick boats engage in (at one point, the Brits clocking over 50 knots).

“It’s hard to do everything right, but I’m very proud of the team… we have been racing better and better,” Bruni said after Saturday’s race. “I’m very happy with the upgrades we made to the boat. It’s going a lot faster now, and I’m super happy with it.”

Luna Rossa’s skipper, Max Sirena, says over the next four days the team will analyse their performance “in all aspects that were not perfect, and understand where we can do better. On the downwinds, for example, INEOS seemed to be very fast.” He expects the Americans, returning from almost sinking, to be “very close and competitive.”   

There will be a 2000 connection in this semifinal shoot-out. The two skippers who will face off were also rivals on the water in that challenger final two decades ago: Sirena was a mid-bowman on Luna Rossa (he’s no longer on the boat) and American Magic’s Terry Hutchinson was a mainsail trimmer on AmericaOne. 

And of course, American Magic’s helmsman on Friday should be Dean Barker – who was handed the wheel of Team New Zealand’s black boat in the final race of their 5-0 whitewash of Prada in the America’s Cup match, beginning his long (and, at times, frustrating) Cup career.

It should be pointed out that not all Italian sailing fans are in raptures over this America’s Cup. In the online comments of La Gazzetta yesterday, one reader wrote: “The current Luna Rossa, a parody of the mythical one of 2000, is by far the worst of the three boats… At the time, there were millions in Italy staying awake to watch the regattas: now we sleep.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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