LONDON (Reuters) - Having achieved the miraculous in leading Oracle Team USA to the America’s Cup last year, Ben Ainslie has set his sights on arguably a greater challenge: returning sport’s oldest trophy to Britain for the first time since 1851.
Ainslie, regarded by some as the greatest Olympic sailor, confirmed on Tuesday he is building a team with the goal of returning the “Auld Mug” to Britain, which lost the first America’s Cup race to the yacht America and has never won it back.
He fulfilled a childhood dream of winning the competition when he masterminded Orcale’s come-from-behind 9-8 victory over Emirates Team New Zealand, after standing on the brink of defeat at 8-1 down in the first-to-nine series.
And now he wants to satisfy another in leading his homeland to victory in 35th America’s Cup in 2017.
“Can we win it? Yeah, we can,” Ainslie said at the launch of the America’s Cup Challenge at the Royal Museums Greenwich in south-east London.
“I don’t think any of us would be standing here if we didn’t think this was winnable.
“We’ve put together a very strong core group. Yes, it’s a huge challenge, to take on Larry Ellison and to take on Oracle is one of the toughest challenges in sport, but we’re determined to do that and we’ve got a great group of people.”
Having experienced a Cup campaign with Oracle’s software mogul owner Ellison and his extensive reserves of funding, Ben Ainslie Racing will be a more frugal affair - albeit one with an 80 million pound ($134.33 million) budget.
Around 40 per cent of that has been secured from wealthy benefactors, but the operation is still searching for a naming rights sponsor and other corporate backers.
Perennial contenders New Zealand, with support from their government, have managed to remain competitive on a budget much smaller than their American rivals.
Ainslie is confident their funding target is enough to give them a fighting chance of success.
“We’ve actually been pretty firm with our budget the whole way through, with half an idea of where the Cup was going and the challenges ahead,” he said.
“Really, it’s taking it down to focusing on the design, the logistics and, of course, having the best possible talent we can have,” Ainslie, who won silver at the 1996 Olympic Games followed by four consecutive golds, explained.
“We really need to be very focused. It’s a target to give us a winning team, but this isn’t a Larry Ellison budget so we need to be extremely focused with the money that we do have.”
Ainslie spoke of being inspired by watching Peter de Savary’s America’s Cup boats training off Falmouth in Cornwall as a youngster, but given the money and prestige at stake in the current competition there is little place for idealism.
The Cup has been marred in recent years by off-the-water bickering, and with defender Oracle having negotiated the rules for the next Cup with Team Australia’s Hamilton Island Yacht Club, the Challenger of Record, there is likely to be plenty more debate.
Among the new protocols, 2017’s Cup will be sailed with a similar but smaller version of the 72-foot, wing-sail catamarans used in 2013. The new 62-foot boats, called AC62s, will be crewed by eight people, three fewer than last year.
Two of those crew in 2017 must be nationals of the country of the yacht club represented, while perhaps most importantly, the venues for the challenger series and America’s Cup have yet to be decided.
Ainslie favored a return to San Francisco, venue for last year’s Cup, and acknowledged there were concerns over the rules and regulations for the next regatta that needed to be worked through.
“There are some issues with the protocol, which is usual,” he said.
“Having said that we’ve had some great conversations already with Oracle with some of those issues, and are trying to work with them rather than against them to resolve those, and we’re very positive of doing that within the time frame.”
Given the manner in which he helped resuscitate Oracle’s campaign in 2013, few would bet against the 37-year-old having the rules altered in his favor and making a success of his latest challenge.
“I was very fortunate to be part of Oracle last time, it was a fantastic experience, a great team, and I have a lot of respect for them and Team New Zealand,” he said. “But we want to win this for Britain.”
($1 = 0.5956 British Pounds)
Editing by Stephen Wood