America's Cup Diary - January 2007

Mid-January saw BMW Oracle launch its second and final boat of this Cup cycle in Auckland. Although the team never likes to give too much away, there are clear signs that Chris Dickson and his team intend to use USA-98 as its battle boat for the coming season. "USA-98 is the result of more than three years of R&D and the culmination of all we learned from our first new boat, USA-87, in the 2006 sailing season," said Dickson after his first day out on the Hauraki Gulf with the new boat.

"We've managed to incorporate all of the developments that we have realized in our technical and on-the-water programme with USA-71, USA-76, and USA-87. The next step is to let the sailing team work with USA-98 to get the most out of her on the race course. The time for testing is over - it is the year of the Cup and time for racing."

This strongly implies that USA-87, the radical bowspritted boat of last season, has fulfilled her duties on the race course and has already been consigned to the role of test boat. USA-98 is said to be quite different from USA-87, which also implies that the team haven't been overly impressed with last year's model. To be fair, USA-87's track record wasn't that bad in the Louis Vuitton Acts of 2006, but nor did she blow the opposition out of the water. When you come up with a boat as radical as that, you expect fireworks. Instead, Emirates Team New Zealand's more conservative new boat, NZL 84, looked a better all-rounder and won the season while Alinghi's modified 2002-generation SUI-75 still looked worryingly competitive.

As usual, with only a fraction of the facts available, it's difficult to draw hard conclusions about where BMW Oracle have reached in the design war compared with their rivals, but has USA-87 been a useful exercise or a red herring? Alinghi surely holds the aces - with SUI-75 still as fast as anything we've seen and SUI-91 and SUI-100 yet to be used in anger.

The thing that weighs in BMW Oracle's favour, however, is how well the team recovered from a slow start in the Louis Vuitton Cup four and half years ago in Auckland. USA-76 appeared well off the pace in the early round-robins while Peter Gilmour appeared to be in charge of a rocketship with the OneWorld boat, USA-67. By the later stages of the Challenger Series, Oracle appeared to have turned the tables. It seemed OneWorld had put all their cards on the table in round one, while Bruce Farr and his design team kept on reshaping and reconfiguring USA-76 through to the Challenger final against Alinghi.

For Tom Ehman, BMW Oracle's director for external affairs, the ability to keep moving forward with new ideas even after racing has begun, will be a key factor this summer. "Chris [Dickson] has been very aggressive and very innovative and we continue to be. And in my experience, like Dennis Conner did in 1987 or Bill Koch did in 1992, it is the team that kept developing, kept trying, kept moving forwards, that goes the distance."