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Is Sir Ben Ainslie about to sail into history? £120m dream of winning America's Cup

His boat has been dismissed as a ‘corgi’ up against a ‘greyhound and two whippets’ and, having lost six consecutive races and scored ‘nul points’, the man dubbed Britain’s greatest sailor since Sir Francis Drake might not disagree.

But this week, Sir Ben Ainslie, the most-decorated yachtsman in Olympic history — with four golds and a silver to his name — staged one of his legendary comebacks.

Now, against all expectations, he and the ten-man crew aboard the £120 million monohull Britannia are in with a chance to do battle in the 36th America’s Cup, the 170-year-old sailing competition that this nation has never won.

After those six defeats in the pre-Christmas warm-up event in New Zealand, Sir Ben and Ineos Team UK this week have stormed back into contention with four wins out of four in the Prada Cup, the contest to determine which team, Britain, Italy or America, will take on the holders, New Zealand, in the America’s Cup final in March — for a prize of $1 million (£730,000).

If Britannia wins just one of its two races against Italy’s Luna Rossa this weekend, it will progress to the Prada Cup final next month. Victory then would mean Ineos Team UK becoming the first British challenger for the America’s Cup since 1964.

Sir Ben Ainslie and the ten-man crew aboard the £120 million monohull Britannia are in with a chance to do battle in the 36th America’s Cup, the 170-year-old sailing competition that this nation has never won

It’s an astonishing turnaround that has electrified the homegrown yachting community and promises to turn Sir Ben, 43, into a hero for a new generation. Aficionados of the America’s Cup are still cooing over his performance in the 2013 competition.

Then, the U.S. Oracle Team were losing 0-4 (to New Zealand in the finals) when the boat’s sponsor, computer tycoon Larry Ellison, decided to parachute in Sir Ben as tactician. From being 1-8 down at one stage, Oracle staged a miraculous recovery to win the Cup 9-8.

But Sir Ben’s latest Houdini act has created much more controversy. There have been dark mutterings about unsporting tactics, in particular a practice known in the sport as ‘sandbagging’ — deliberately underperforming to lull your opponents into a false sense of security.

One veteran skipper observed this week: ‘I’m sorry guys, but does anyone else think they’ve [Ineos] been sandbagging? It’s unbelievable what we’re seeing . . . Where did this come from?’

The answer is from an extremely sophisticated and well-funded outfit. Sir Ben, who made his name sailing tiny single-handed dinghies, now stands at the head of a team made up of dozens of top-flight designers, scientists, engineers and mechanics backed by Jim Ratcliffe, founder of the chemicals giant Ineos and one of Britain’s richest men.

The billionaire funded the development of the 75 ft, 6.5-ton state-of-the-art monohull yacht, which ‘flies’ on foils — in effect, wings affixed to the hull which, as the speed increases, are pushed upwards so raising the boat — attaining speeds of around 50 knots (57.5mph).

Designed with the aid of super-computers and using advanced materials, every aspect of the boat’s performance is monitored and fed back in real time so technicians can sift, crunch, dice and slice the data to advise the crew what to do next — and when — in a race.

Sir Ben and Jim met via a mutual friend, yacht broker Chris Cecil-Wright. ‘I introduced Ben to Jim over a G&T in a London club three years ago,’ he told the Mail.

The astonishing turnaround that has electrified the homegrown yachting community and promises to turn Sir Ben (pictured with the Duchess of Cambridge in 2016), 43, into a hero for a new generation

‘I knew Ben needed more money for his team and I knew Jim would enjoy Ben’s incredible drive and commitment, so I was confident Jim would contribute.

‘What I didn’t know is that, having met Ben, Jim would insist on funding the whole campaign.

‘Jim has put more than £100 million into Ineos’s America’s Cup programme.’

He adds: ‘Ben is the most focused and driven person I know apart from Jim. They are both very tactical, very driven, sports- loving and single-minded in their pursuits.’

‘For Ben that has meant winning gold medal after gold medal. Now, he is absolutely dedicated to putting together a winning campaign for the America’s Cup. He’s much more than just helmsman. He does everything. He is the leading force in the team. He got the money for the team. He motivates the team via a microphone on the boat. I would say he is tactically and strategically very clever.’

Back in December, all this investment and preparation appeared to have come to naught. In their first race, Britannia lost to the U.S. team’s American Magic by a staggering five minutes. Two days later, the Americans thrashed them again by the same margin.

Britannia was even beaten by the Italian contender Luna Rossa by nearly four minutes. Ugly rumours began to spread that, off the water, the atmosphere in Team Ineos was growing toxic.

The finger-pointing had allegedly begun over squandered resources, a lack of professionalism, and weak leadership.

Britannia maintained unbeaten run by making it four victories from four starts on Sunday

However, cometh the hour, cometh the legend. Last week, Britannia lined up for its qualifier races in the Prada Cup, first against American Magic and then Luna Rossa.

Sir Ben and his crew not only won both races but also blew away the opposition. In the second set of round-robin races, Britannia thrashed American Magic by nearly five minutes.

All the problems that had previously beset the team — difficulty in manoeuvring and a tendency to ‘splash down’ or fall off the foils at low speeds — had vanished. Britannia flew at speeds of up to 40 knots (46mph) to win all four races.

It was then that the allegations began. Sir Ben countered with a double-edged response: ‘If we are sandbagging, we did a bloody good job of it.’

‘It’s definitely the same boat,’ he added, ‘with quite a few modifications.’

And he has elaborated on what exactly he and his crew had got up to in the 34 days between the humiliating defeats in the pre-Christmas races and the start of the Prada Cup.

Aided by engineers at the Mercedes F1 team (with whom Ineos is in partnership), and co-ordinated by Jim Ratcliffe, Sir Ben and his colleagues had given Britannia a ‘makeover’.

‘We can’t do a huge amount to the hull,’ he says, ‘but pretty much every component on the boat — be that the rig and sails, the rudder, the elevator, the foils, the systems how we control the boat — we pretty much changed everything.’

Asked how he feels about Britannia’s storming performance in the Prada Cup, Sir Ben says: ‘Relief, I think, is probably the overriding emotion. It’s been tough. Huge credit goes to the team here and back home. And to our friends at Mercedes F1 who have helped us out a lot.’

Its performance certainly comes as a big boost to a nation for whom 2021 has so far proved fairly grim.

Ironically, lockdown has enabled millions to watch these edge-of-the-duvet duels, which are being played out in the early hours — New Zealand is 13 hours ahead of the UK — because they no longer have an early commute.

It all adds up to a great tale — and at his side Sir Ben has the perfect person to tell it, his wife Georgie, a former Sky Sports presenter.

She is already in the process of producing a documentary about the entire dramatic saga.

The way things are going, it will be a must-watch.

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