Ben Ainslie ‘gutted’ after disqualification torpedoes GBR's SailGP hopes

Ben Ainslie at SailGP - Ainslie ‘gutted’ after disqualification torpedoes GBR's SailGP hopes
Sir Ben Ainslie's disappointment with the disqualification was exacerbated by the reaction of another crew - Getty Images/Ricardo Pinto

Ben Ainslie was “absolutely gutted” after a hugely controversial disqualification in race five ended Emirates Team GBR’s hopes of winning SailGP Dubai. The GBR team’s coach Rob Wilson and strategist Hannah Mills both questioned the umpire’s call, saying it should have been an on-water penalty “at most”.

Having won the third and final race on Saturday to put themselves in contention overnight, the British team had made a brilliant start to the final day. Ainslie’s team won race four, streaking away from the fleet in light winds of just 6-7 kph which necessitated using the big 29-metre wings and only four crew again. That win put GBR in an excellent position to qualify for the three-boat final.

But a fateful decision to go for the windward end of the line in race five proved costly. They hit it at high speed, and would have gone on to lead the fleet round the first mark. But after a tense wait the umpires ruled that GBR had not kept sufficiently clear of the American boat, which had right of way, handing them a black flag which effectively ended their chances of making the final race. The umpires had disqualified the Germans for a similar, albeit far more blatant, infringement the previous day.

Ainslie could be seen shaking his head immediately after the decision was announced. The four-time Olympic champion was later diplomatic. “I’ve not seen the Umpire App [the GPS system which tracks the boats’ positions],” he said. “I think it was 50-50. But I’d need to see it again. It was a shame. I’m frustrated with myself. I’ve put it in the hands of the umpires too many times and it’s gone against us again.

“That’s disappointing, because it’s had a massive impact on my career and my experience in SailGP. But I can’t blame anyone else. If you push it that close, there’s every chance that the umpire will go against you.”

Mills and Wilson were less understanding. Wilson – who was sitting in the SailGP ‘pitwall’ area, a new development for this event which apes Formula One, allowing coaches and team staff to stay on shore with screens and telemetry and radios, rather than follow on chase boats – said it was “definitely” not a disqualification, calling it a “very big call indeed”. Mills agreed, arguing it should have been an on-water penalty “at worst”.

Emirates GBR
Emirates GBR was crossing the start line next to Taylor Canfield's United States - Getty Images/Bob Martin

It is not the first time the British team have had issues with chief umpire Craig Mitchell and his team, who operate remotely from a booth in London.

At SailGP Plymouth last July, Ainslie was furious when Britain were controversially denied a spot in the final after Mitchell penalised them for a tight cross with Australia at the end of the final fleet race. Ainslie suggested, only half-jokingly, that the watching Princess of Wales should “send him to the Tower”. “It’s not the first time I haven’t agreed with Craig Mitchell and it won’t be the last,” Ainslie predicted.

He was right. Ainslie rued the fact that it was the American boat that happened to be adjacent, as they have an all-new crew and helmsman in Taylor Canfield, a world match-racing champion. Ainslie felt that Canfield had tried to force the penalty rather than concentrate on getting the fastest start possible.

“I think my advice to [Canfield] would be, if he’s going to be successful in SailGP, he should focus on fleet racing not match racing,” Ainslie said. “But again, I put us in that position. So you can’t blame anyone but yourself.”

Ainslie was also unhappy with the reaction of Canadian helmsman Phil Robertson, who appeared to be enjoying the British disqualification a little too much. “It’s the usual Phil Robertson, taking glee in other people’s misfortune, which doesn’t’ surprise me,” he said.

The final was actually a classic, New Zealand coming from behind to take a dramatic win against Australia and Canada that was decided literally in the last metres after all three boats came around the final mark together.

Emirates Team GBR finished the regatta in fifth place, rising to fourth overall after six events of the season.

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