Big Ben's 'love tap' does NZ favour

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By Paul Lewis

Believe it or not, Britain's Sir Ben Ainslie might have done Emirates Team New Zealand and the America's Cup a favour.

The practice sessions in Bermuda have been leavened by the odd capsize and broken rudder, relieving the fearful boredom of racing that isn't actually racing because the teams are busy hiding aces up their sleeves.

But Big Ben giving his "love tap" to Emirates Team NZ this week pulled the lid off the sewer. Kiwis laid into him, many blowing up at the nonchalance of his apology and inferring foul play.

He didn't do it deliberately. A $180 million campaign is not risked in the yachting equivalent of a coathanger tackle.

Ainslie is not silly enough to go round ramming people on purpose.

Ah, but what if his boat isn't up to it?

That's the gossip from various yachting circles - Ben Ainslie Racing, the best British challenge for many a year and starring the greatest sailor who ever lived (oh, sorry, that's the other Sir, isn't it?) is reportedly dragging its ass.

Now...before we go any further, a disclaimer. What you read from this point on may well be utter tosh.

That's because anyone who can deduce anything concrete at this stage of the America's Cup is either (a) a liar (b) a hopeless optimist (c) a fantasist or (d) Nostra-bleeding-damus.

However, recent interviews, gossip and bar talk suggests Oracle Team USA are quick - probably fastest at this stage; Team Japan, skippered by one Dean Barker, also rate, bearing in mind they have been spoon-fed by the defender and could easily be called Spawn Of Oracle.

Still, Japan may struggle to face Oracle in the Cup match. You might adopt an orphan lion cub, but you don't train it to eat you, do you?

Artemis, lame ducks at the last Cup in San Francisco, are reputedly fast but the Brits apparently are having trouble with straight-line speed - bit of a disadvantage in a drag race.

That's why Ainslie might have done us all a favour. The love tap was redolent of a committed and aggressive sailor frustrated at his boat's performance.

Continued below.

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The gap he tried to go through was like trying to squeeze Kim Kardashian's backside through a keyhole.

Ainslie is no quitter; the ding will have set him back a ways but he may try to make up for lack of boat speed by sailing like a man possessed. That will add extra ginger to a regatta already populated by highly-strung thoroughbreds...sorry, yachts...which sail on the edge of control and sometimes lose it.

ETNZ need friends right now and the crash has stimulated some interest and support.

They are repairing the boat but only light winds have prevailed since the crash; the Kiwis say they have more speed to come and being off the water will keep the boat away from further prying eyes. Meanwhile Ainslie, having named the British challenge after himself, is under enormous pressure to avoid another Brexit.

BAR may be foxing; they could have new equipment they are either still learning how to use or which they have not yet exposed to prying eyes. But it doesn't look good.

So ETNZ, to face Oracle in the Cup match, will likely have to get past biggest dangers Artemis and maybe Japan. France are reputedly having trouble with both speed and stability.

ETNZ's first race - against France - may not even reveal fully what, if any, gains the Kiwis have made with their cycling grinders and their rumoured edge in enhanced hydraulic power. That might have to wait until their second race next Sunday morning - against Oracle who have self-servingly inserted themselves into the challenger series.

It's also been dead interesting seeing a cycling station go up on Oracle's boat - after all the pooh-poohing of ETNZ's cyclo-grinders. It's not known yet if OTUSA will actually use it come race day but it is, if nothing else, grudging acceptance Team NZ may be on to something.

It's also interesting ETNZ have slipped the leash on team boss Grant Dalton. They haven't actually had him in a cage, feeding him raw meat and prodding him with sharp sticks, but he was unable to resist the opportunity to goad Barker this week.

"They are exactly the same [as Oracle], they are the same team, just by different name," he said of Team Japan. "That's good old Kiwis going to help the defender." Which is a bit rich, given the circumstances of Barker's exit from ETNZ.

But it's good to see the old warhorse up and at 'em. Team NZ's Achilles heel is lack of time on the water - which makes the recent refusal of OTUSA and Team Japan to practice race against them make more sense. Why help the Kiwis gain more racing time?

Ah, yes, it's the America's Cup, all right - pettiness and Team NZ a "lone wolf", ostracised by the defender and other challengers. As the old joke goes: It's not paranoia if they're all out to get you.

• This article was updated at 3.25pm to remove a quote wrongly attributed to former America's Cup skipper Chris Dickson. Our apologies to Chris.

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