Software tycoon sets up SailGP circuit to rival America’s Cup

It will come down to one 20-minute race between two boats for $1 million.

That’s the vision for a new global sailing series to rival the America’s Cup, launched by Oracle software billionaire Larry Ellison and five-time Cup winner Russell Coutts.

The new SailGP circuit will feature cutting-edge F50 foiling catamarans that will fly across the water at speeds “in excess of 50 knots (60 mph),” according to Coutts.

The one-design racing machines will be similar to the AC50 catamarans from the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda, in which Ellison and Coutts’ Oracle Team USA lost the Auld Mug to Team New Zealand.

The pair, who were at the forefront of the historic America’s Cup’s recent foray into giant multihulls, declined to enter the 36th edition which will take place in 75-foot foiling monohulls in Auckland in 2021.

Instead, they were keen to build on the multihull legacy and came up with SailGP to fill what New Zealander Coutts thinks is a gap in the sail racing market.

“To me what’s been lacking is a cohesive, consistent, professional arm to the sport in high performance boats that these sailors can feed into a structured way,” Coutts, 56, told CNN Sport at a launch event near Tower Bridge in London.

“That’s frankly what’s been missing, and now we’ve got a formula where we can put on exciting racing that’s actually watchable and understandable in the modern era.”

‘Like playing chess while dancing in a hammock’

The circuit will be initially funded by Ellison, who has a net worth of about $63 billion, before moving to a franchise model.

It will begin in Sydney, Australia in February 2019, with short, close-to-the-shore fleet racing featuring six teams representing USA, Australia, Great Britain, France, Japan and China.

It will then visit San Francisco, New York, Cowes in England and Marseille in France in September where the big-money head-to-head final will take place to determine the championship winner.

“I think it’s going to incredibly exhilarating,” said Coutts, who won three America’s Cups as a skipper and two more as CEO of Oracle, including the remarkable 2013 fightback from 9-1 down against Team New Zealand.

“I’m just picturing six teams lined up in Sydney, ripping across Sydney Harbor at probably speeds greater than 50 knots, all heading towards the first turning mark — I’ve got to see this, it’s going to be fantastic. I wish I was part of it.”

Olympian Dylan Fletcher, helmsman for the newly announced British team, said racing a high-performance catamaran was “like playing chess while dancing in a hammock.”

The boats, which have been in development for a year in Auckland, will be strictly one design but a core team of designers and builders will constantly advance the technology and apply the upgrades across the fleet.

The budget for each team is estimated to be about $5 million, with logistics and transport also centralized to reduce costs.

That’s in contrast to the 167-year-old America’s Cup, which has become as much a design arms race as it is a sailing competition, with team budgets for the 2021 edition well over $140 million.

“It’s really the skill of the sailors and the quality of the athletes that will determine winner from loser,” said Ellison on a video played at the launch Wednesday.

The boats will carry five crew, and the series will feature a strict nationality rule for the USA, Australia, France and Great Britain teams, with the Japanese and Chinese entries allowed to phase in homegrown sailors to help them stay competitive.

“I think it’s fundamental to this brand,” added Coutts, who won the America’s Cup with New Zealand in 1995 and 2000 before triumphing with Swiss outfit Alinghi in 2003.

“I think fans like to follow and try to belong to a team. It’s proven that’s one of the best ways to do it.”

The inaugural SailGP circuit will compete in the professional sailing market with the America’s Cup warm-up series and other multihull events such as the GC32 competition and the Extreme Sailing Series.

Ellison will be helped by a handful of key backers, such as Oracle, car maker Land Rove — the title sponsor for Briton Ben Ainslie’s last America’s Cup campaign — and luxury goods brand Louis Vuitton, the former long-term sponsor of the America’s Cup challenger series.

“I think there is a formula, certainly at the price point we’re looking at, that can be commercially successful,” added Coutts.

“If we contain our costs to the point where we’re creating enough value with our partners to exceed what we’re spending then this will be successful. In other words, if it’s profitable, it’s successful.”