They say there’s no show without Punch. So it feels a little strange to have an America’s Cup without the illustrious presence of Mr Bertelli.

The man behind the Luna Rossa sailing empire, who’s poured 24 years and hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to win the Auld Mug, will get out of his bed in Milan, blurry-eyed in the early hours of the morning, to watch his team race half a world away.

This is the most significant moment in the Italian team’s history since making the America’s Cup match in 2000 – and losing to Team New Zealand – on their first attempt. They’ve never come close since.

But in these complicated times of Covid-19, and the time he’d have to spend away from his job as the CEO of luxury goods giant Prada Group, Patrizio Bertelli could not afford to leave Italy.

It will be wrenching for one of the icons of the America’s Cup to watch this long-awaited, best-of-13-race match against Emirates Team New Zealand by satellite. But he can take solace in the fact he won’t be alone – over one million Italians watched the deciding day of the Prada Cup final when Luna Rossa mowed down Sir Ben Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK, and that’s expected to swell for the real reason Luna Rossa are here.

Yesterday Bertelli made a brief appearance in Auckland, his image and voice transported by Zoom. Surrounded by art in his office in Prada’s Milan headquarters, he looked down from the screen Godfather-like, above his skipper, Max Sirena, and Team NZ’s Peter Burling at the pre-Cup skippers’ press conference.

(Team NZ’s CEO Grant Dalton wasn’t present – he’s dodged the spotlight a fair bit in this regatta – but this was the skippers’ show, not the bosses’. And this is ‘The 36th America’s Cup presented by PRADA’).

Through an interpreter, Mr Bertelli – as he’s known by his team and the Cup fraternity – spoke about the incredibly close “family” the Luna Rossa team had become over the decades. How the children of the 2000 campaign were now part of this team – like grinder Matteo Celon, who was a toddler in Auckland when his father, Claudio, was a trimmer on Luna Rossa.

Luna Rossa grinder Matteo Celon signing posters for young fans in Auckland – as he was in 2000. Photo: COR36 | Studio Borlenghi.

“In Italy we feel a lot of expectation, we know we are in for something unexpected. But it’s a sport, we should always see it as a sport – you shouldn’t be obsessed with it,” he said. 

And yet there’s no doubt the Auld Mug is a virus Bertelli can’t shake from his system.

This is his fifth shot at winning the world’s oldest sports trophy, and he says, “This is the best condition we’ve found ourselves in, in the last 20 years of regattas.”

Bertelli flew in and out of Auckland in 2000 and 2003. In the rare interviews I was granted with him, he was frank, succinct and very passionate about winning the Cup.

Italian lawyer Alessandra Pandarese, who’s been caught up in the America’s Cup since 1987, says Bertelli “deserved to be here” with his team.

“We have to thank him a lot for what he’s done for the team. He needs a lot of recognition, even from New Zealand, because he has been consistently confident to carry on in the Cup, no matter what’s been happening all over the world,” she says.

Sirena agreed: “Patrizio is really the guy behind the team. Without him Luna Rossa wasn’t going to be able to achieve what it did.”

But with or without their billionaire in situ, Luna Rossa will be all engines firing at today’s start line – determined to take the silver ewer back home to their boss. 

The mystery of speed

The question on everyone’s lips – here and in Italy – is who has the faster boat? Both skippers have made it clear that superior boat speed could determine the winner of the 36th America’s Cup, which could be all over as soon as Sunday.

But in spite of all the numbers pouring off the boats these days, and all the legitimate spying now allowed, Burling reckons it’s as much a mystery to his team as it is to everyone else who’s quicker.

Both skippers scotched rumours the duelling AC75s have surpassed 57 knots in training (some scuttlebutt has Team NZ clocking 60 knots). Sirena revealed Luna Rossa’s speedo has touched a top speed of 53.4 knots. Burling wasn’t so forthcoming.

But when asked if he felt Team NZ’s Te Rehutai was the faster boat, Burling replied: “I definitely hope so.

Team NZ skipper Peter Burling looks across to rival, Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena, the day before the 36th America’s Cup match begins. Photo: America’s Cup.

“I definitely think in a lot of conditions we’re relatively confident we have a faster boat. But there are obviously a lot of conditions where Luna Rossa has proved to be very strong… but a lot of those are areas where we’ve been making some pretty big strides forward in the last few months.

“Especially in our light airs sailing, which was probably our biggest weakness in the Christmas Cup. It’s the area we’ve improved the most on in the last couple of months.”

They’ve developed a special lightweight Code Zero sail to help them in those conditions, which we may see them draw from their arsenal in the next week – when the wind is forecasted to be at either end of the racing scale (6.5 knots to 23 knots).

Burling is wary of the Italians’ speed in a straight line, and their efficiency in their manoeuvring. “They don’t have too many weaknesses, but it always ends up coming down to that speed question,” he says.

“We’re preparing for a really tight yacht race, and I’m sure they are as well.”

Will they need a miracle?

Burling swerved when asked whether Team NZ would adopt the dual helmsmen role like Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni appear to have perfected on Luna Rossa.

Luna Rossa are at a disadvantage, not being privy to the data from Team NZ’s testing (racing against their chase boat) these past few months. They continue to say Team NZ were noticeably faster than them in the pre-Christmas World Series, which the Kiwis won. “We are expecting them to be fast. We need to just understand how fast,” Sirena said.

At a meeting of the entire Italian team yesterday morning, Sirena told them: “You have nothing to lose. You can only win. It’s a life opportunity that doesn’t happen often.”

Max Sirena sprays his Luna Rossa team with champagne after winning the Prada Cup. Photo: COR36 | Studio Borlenghi.

After a shaky start in the Prada Cup, Luna Rossa brushed off claims they would be the first boat to leave Auckland. “Even in the final, they say the Italians are going to go back home crying,” Sirena says. “Now we are in the final, and people say the Italians they will need a miracle to beat Team New Zealand.

“If they’re going to beat us that means they did better work than us. It’s sport.”

None of the sailors onboard Luna Rossa today were in the crew of 2000 (who lost 0-5 to Sir Russell Coutts’ team). Sirena was, but these days he is the skipper from the chase boat. He refuses to compare now and then.

“In my last 25 years I don’t look to the past. Every campaign, every race is different,” he says. “The only way to beat them is if we sail well and have a good speed boat.”

Burling, in his second America’s Cup, can’t even compare this time to Bermuda in 2017, when Team NZ were the challengers.

“It’s a different feeling. I don’t think two sporting events are ever the same. At every sporting event, you have to build up in a slightly different way. I’m not superstitious, but I like to stick to a routine in the build-up.”

This morning, the sailors will arrive at Team NZ’s Halsey St base a little later than usual, with the two-race day not kicking off until after 4pm. They will have a weather meeting with meteorologist Roger “Clouds” Badham around midday before preparing the boat for battle.

Are there any nerves? “Not right now,” Burling says, before taking Te Rehutai out in a misty rain for a final practice spin around the cans. “Right now it’s more about the excitement. There aren’t that many times in your career you get to race for your country on your home waters. That’s something we’re incredibly excited to do.”

Racing is on Course E today, with a forecast of north-westerly winds between 13 and 16 knots. Thursday is a rest day, with  racing every day after until the first team reaches seven wins.   

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

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