Is a Grand Prix Rule still needed?

The RORC Rating Office's Mike Urwin airs his views

Wednesday March 21st 2007, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom
This article follows on from part one on IRC published yesterday

Grand Prix Rule

Obviously one of the tasks the Rating Office has been involved with in recent years is the development of an internationally acceptable Grand Prix Rule. The idea behind this, as was the case with IOR back in 1970, was to promote international competition but also to cater for an elite group of custom-built racing boats that would otherwise race under IRC, where they would be stretching what is effectively a cruiser-racer rule and ruining the racing for the non-professionals.

Unfortunately development of a Grand Prix Rule has reached a stumbling block with the three parties involved with its creation - RORC, the ORC and US Sailing - going their separate ways. Since then it could be argued they have been overtaken by events, particularly the advent of box rule classes such as the TP52 and the ORC’s GP 42, along with successful one designs like the Farr 40, Melges 24 and Mumm 30, and the need for such as rule is much reduced.

“One can argue that there is a successful TP52 circuit, there is apparently going to be a successful ORC GP 42 circuit, probably limited to the Med, and that takes out maybe 40-50 of the world’s top owners, the serious keen players,” argues the RORC Rating Office's Technical Manager, Mike Urwin. "Given also that IRC seems to be increasing accepted around the world as the default rule of choice - do we then need to go any further? Well, I’m not sure. There are those who are racing in IRC who perhaps should be elsewhere. Is it right, for instance, to build one-off boats to race under IRC? Arguably not.”

There were several areas of disagreement between the parties involved with the new Grand Prix Rule. One was over just what percentage of the elite racing fleet it should encompass. "My personal view is it has to appeal to and be open to a significant percentage of the fleet," says Urwin. "It is not the top 1-2%, it is somewhere between 5 and 15% I think. Putting that into context, Cowes Week has approximately 400 boats racing under IRC, so we are talking somewhere around 20-60 boats." US Sailing's view is that it should be closer to 5%.

For such a rule to work Urwin says it is essential for it to be embraced by race organisers. He gives the example of the one of the world’s most highly attended races, the annual Round the Island Race, where the handicap winner receives the Gold Roman Bowl. “Historically that was an IOR trophy and it was won by the latest greatest 1 tonner, ¾ tonner or half tonner. More recently, under firstly CHS and latterly IRC, it is open to anybody. If that was taken away and given back to an elite group - how would the majority of competitors feel about that? Would the Island Sailing Club be able to do it?”

It is also essential that a new Grand Prix Rule is embraced by competitors en masse. There is little point in holding an event where some top race boats are competing under IRC and the rest under a Grand Prix Rule.

RORC and their Rating Office have obviously been down this road before with IRM, launched at the same time as IRC and also aimed at the upper echelons. The rule has attracted a small group of serious racers within the UK, who now have their own class association, but it has been used only sporadically by race organisers and hasn’t succeeded in achieving the international reach RORC had hoped when they launched it.

The boldest use of IRM was at Cork Week where the organisers demanded that all boats of particular characteristics were obliged to race under it. “It was a brave move and that worked very very well,” says Urwin. “That comes back to what I was saying about the trophies - it is requires a pro-active stance from the event organisers and the trophy holders. In that particular case the organisers said ‘all you guys are going over there’ and they said ‘oh, okay’ and they had fantastic racing and interestingly the racing in the IRC classes was much better too because the 'race' boats and campaigns were taken away. So that worked for everybody and in my view it is a shame that hasn’t been properly repeated.”

The Cork Week technique is one way to differentiate who should be racing under IRC or IRM/a Grand Prix Rule, but we wonder if there is any other way. "Any rule has to define it on the basis of the physical parameters of the boat, but the reality is that it is not the boat you are getting at, it is the owner and the crew. It is the campaign that needs to go in the right place and that again is hard to deal with," says Urwin.

Another bone of contention between RORC and the ORC and US Sailing was over how the measurement of boats should be made, ORC and US Sailing preferring more physical measurement along the same lines as IMS.

"As an engineer/scientist, the theory of using force balance velocity prediction methodologies to predict the speed of a boat and then to apply handicapping through that methodology appeals to me enormously," says Urwin of IMS. "The problem is that it is technically very very complex, not just for the administrators, but also for owners in terms of the measurement that is required, plus designers in many cases have vastly superior research resources than rating rule administrators, therefore the designers very quickly get ahead of the rule and produce boats that typeform to the rule and outdate every other boat in the fleet. So while the method behind IMS appeals enormously, in practice I am not sure it works terribly well or that the complexity is justified. So we prefer the more simplistic approach taken by IRC."

The US view is that if a Grand Prix Rule is designed for teams who will be applying America’s Cup or Volvo Ocean Race levels of sophistication to beat them, then the rule must be the last word in accuracy and this means a highly complex IMS-style of measurement.

Urwin disagrees: "There is a view around that what we need to do is do what IMS does and take into account the full shape of the hull in order to calculate the most accurate possible rating. Our view is more that you don’t need to do that because the boats we are going to see under a High Level Rule [Urwin prefers this term to 'Grand Prix Rule'] will be very largely type formed. Let’s be honest - all rating rules type form boats. So if that happens why then do you need to take detailed measurements of the entire hull? The technology to do that is available, but it is very expensive. The gain in ‘accuracy’ of rating is nebulous, particularly between two similar boats - so why do we need to do that? If you take a wholly academic, scientific viewpoint then of course you do that, but what we are dealing with is pragmatism on the water, where a 3deg shift two minutes after the start probably determines the outcome more than anything else.”

So in a nutshell, Urwin’s argument is that even a Grand Prix Rule need only be so accurate given that it must operate in the most volatile of environments: out on the water.

Another ingredient of IMS, that IRC and IRM don’t take into account, is weather. As a result under these latter rules there are boats that become favourite in heavy conditions or light conditions while IMS goes some way to balancing this out. Urwin’s view is that varying weather conditions should just be taken as a fact of life.

“In ocean racing there is an element of chance attached. In a race like the Sydney Hobart, 600 miles on a straight line down the coast, across Bass Strait and down to Hobart, two boats, the same distance down the course, could be 100-150 miles apart in completely different weather. Why did Aera win the Hobart race three years ago? Because they hung on offshore, got the shift, tacked and laid Hobart."

Urwin consolidates his argument of why IMS-style measurement is needlessly complex even for a Grand Prix Rule, with the following statement: "Over the years we have taken results of regattas, scored under performance curve scoring, and rescored those using a single number rating, again derived from IMS. What we find without exception is that, yes, the results of individual races change, but the results of the regatta overall invariably remain unchanged. If one had a regatta which was all in one way in one set of conditions it might not be true, but in any regatta which comprises a series of races in some variety of conditions, the gain of ‘accuracy’ is nebulous to say the least."

In all the time the Rating Office has been monitoring this the only occasion it changed the overall results was in a Commodores’ Cup more than a decade ago when a tie for third place in one class was broken. "If you look at things like Admiral’s Cup when that was sailed under IMS, because the boats are all very similar the results are completely unchanged."

At present RORC Commodore David Aisher is pushing to revisit the Grand Prix Rule, but the outcome is more likely to come from his team’s political prowess than any arguing at Urwin’s level.

A Grand Prix - is it still needed? What is your view? Email us here

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