Today’s America’s Cup yacht is a radical departure from traditional fabric-sail, single-hull racing sailboats. Since 2013, the new class actually flies its twin hulls above the water lifted by foils and is powered by a rigid wing mainsail. It’s akin to an aircraft. Or even a racecar. This ultimate sailboat is designed to compete at speeds of more than 50 mph.
- Bob Devol
FULL SAIL. FLAT OUT
Jimmy Spithill has a tiger by the tail. He’s driving the Oracle TEAM USA race boat flying on the ragged edge of control, liable to buck and bite at the slightest wrong turn of the wheel.
“The boats are incredibly difficult to drive,” said Spithill, Oracle Team USA’s skipper. “The boat is going very, very fast and any subtle move on the wheel or on the foil adjustment you really feel. So, every movement you have to anticipate — sometimes it’s a split second. You also need the coordination of the other guys [the crew]. You need the guy trimming the wing [mainsail], and you need the guys powering the [human-powered pump] hydraulic system for the foils, so it really is a team effort.”
To win, Oracle Team USA [the defending America’s Cup champion] needs every advantage it can muster. It takes a skilled skipper, canny tactics, wind-whispering wing trimmer and elite athleticism by all hands to extract maximum performance from America’s Cup race boats.
“You always want to be going as fast as you can, as hard as you can.”
Jimmy Spithill, Skipper ORACLE TEAM USA
BRAINS, BRAWN AND BREAKTHROUGHS
Winning in today’s America’s Cup competition demands a blend of intelligence, athleticism and creative technology.
The winning edge is measured in a fraction of a percent difference in overall boat speed. It could be the result of slightly out-maneuvering the other boat, pointing a degree higher into the wind, tacking a second sooner, or countless other factors. Such tiny differences are difficult to account for by simple numerical modeling. Thus, yacht design is still very much an art where even a small technological advantage can pay off big.
DANCING ON THE EDGE
Today’s America’s Cup race boats share one characteristic with their racecar cousins – going fast demands a delicate dance on the razor thin line separating speed from chaos. “Essentially anything that is stable is slow,” said Spithill. You always want to be going as fast as you can, as hard as you can. You’re never perfect and you’re just trying to anticipate and figure out which way the boat is going to go.”
Racing yacht design is mind-bogglingly complex, generally even more so than airplanes. These high-tech boats must balance between rules governing their construction, structural properties of their materials, wind and water forces, crew safety, and the controls needed to operate them.
It’s no surprise that helmsmen like Spithill are often called “drivers.”
Did someone say “drivers?” Well, then, now that we’re talking driving…
ENTER THE M FACTOR
BMW is more than a sponsor of Oracle Team USA. As technological partners, BMW Motorsport engineers are teammates, too. They’re adding their racing expertise to help make the Oracle Team USA boat easier to drive faster. Said BMW M engineer Michael Mayr, “Our racecar drivers have to react to a lot of stuff like a changing environment and conditions and so we have looked at those controls to see what could fit for [Oracle Team USA’s boat].”
Working with the Oracle Team USA tech team, BMW M engineers are developing a revolutionary steering and control system that applies technology, not only from BMW’s current racecars like the M6 GTLM or M4 DTM machines, but also from what BMW M learned in creating special controls for paraplegic BMW racing driver Alexander Zanardi. “The first thing that came to mind was our experience with Zanardi, because he operates the throttle and the clutch from the wheel in addition to all the other stuff he has to do on the steering wheel,” said Michael.
BMW M engineers are also working on systems to help Spithill instantly access the critical split-second real-time data he needs to make instant decisions while still keeping an eye on crew movements, sail trim, and, importantly, the competition.
BMW M and Oracle Team USA share a common DNA: the unquenchable desire to test the limits – and win. It’s a bond formed between hardcore racers who love speed and winning. “The guys at Oracle Team USA are racers,” said Michael. “And that’s what we love to do at BMW Motorsport. They are very similar to us in that we have to squeeze out the maximum performance.”