SAN FRANCISCO — Barring a big breeze or breakdown, Emirates Team New Zealand will wrap up a spot in the America's Cup match against defending champion Oracle Team USA on Saturday.
The Kiwis know it. The Italians know it. Anybody following the races knows it.
After the Kiwis cruised past Luna Rossa again Friday to take a 5-1 lead in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals, Italian skipper Max Sirena suggested one way to extend the challenger series beyond this weekend.
"I would like to swap boats," Sirena quipped.
"I don't think we'd look good in silver," Emirates skipper Dean Barker responded, referring to the shiny sailing gear and chrome hulls of the Italian team, which is backed by the Prada fashion house.
Style points are about the only competition left.
At this point, Emirates is approaching the remaining races as the last chance to prepare for Oracle. The Kiwis clearly have had the boat to beat in the challenger series, and when – not if – they advance is the only lingering question. That, of course, and whether they are better than Oracle.
"That's the hundred-million dollar question: who's going to have the advantage?" Barker said.
The Kiwis are making quite a strong case they do.
Foiling fast on foggy San Francisco Bay, Barker and his crew completed a repeat of past performances in the latest race. Emirates moved over the top before the first marker, leaving Luna Rossa difficult air in its path and building a lead the rest of the way to win by 1 minute, 57 seconds.
Emirates needs two more victories in the best-of-13 series to set up a match with Oracle in the 34th America's Cup starting Sept. 7. The Kiwis can end it as soon as Saturday, when two races are scheduled, though a forecast of strong wind threatens to push back the second race or even both to Sunday.
The weather might be the only way the Italians survive past the weekend.
The one Luna Rossa win in the finals of the challenger series came in the second race, when the Kiwis withdrew because the electronics system that controls the hydraulics failed. Emirates tactician Ray Davies called that an odd occurrence and promised his team wouldn't be beat by a mechanical mishap again, and so far that's held true – and then some.
Sailing in lighter air and on a stronger flood tide, the Kiwis crushed the current and the competition. Both teams started evenly, and just like every other race, Emirates popped up on its foils quickly and led at the first marker.
The Italians never got so close again.
"It'd be like running a race and going around the corner and knowing that the person in front of you is probably going to be quicker and then try to catch up to them," Luna Rossa bowman Nick Hutton said. "If you do that every day, it gets a little restraining."
The biggest reason the Kiwis are winning – besides a better boat – is because they're foiling far better and far faster than the Italians on the high-performance 72-foot catamarans.
Foiling is when the boat is going fast enough to pop up onto the daggerboard in the leeward hull and winglets on the bottom of the rudders and ride over the tops of the waves, its hulls out of the water. That reduces drag and increases speed.
Once again, Emirates even foiled upwind – considered far more difficult than downwind – in a heavy current. The Kiwis also have pulled off several foiling gybes – when a boat changes direction while sailing downwind and stays on the foils, without the hulls touching the water – in the last few races, clearly trying to get ready for Oracle and not sail down to its current competition, no matter the lead.
"It's a balance," Barker said. "You have to race these boats hard to avoid making mistakes. The faster you go, the safer the boats actually become. You just have to keep pushing hard. There are obviously things we're looking at on the course."
Emirates has a second-generation boat, while the Italians are still working out the kinks of their first boat, which they've said is similar to the Kiwis' original prototype. Luna Rossa entered the competition about 18 months behind and has said this summer is about building toward the next America's Cup series.
That time off is approaching quickly.
"It's not the mistakes we made now. It's the mistakes we made months and months ago," Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper said, referring to design decisions. "We're going to give it everything we can in the last two races."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP