Ian Roman Photography / Audi MedCup

Where next for the TP52s and Soto 40s?

Lower key circuit looks likely to go ahead in 2012

Wednesday December 7th 2011, Author: James Boyd, Location: Spain

Audi pulling out of the MedCup, after contact renegotations failed to be resolved, is one of the most significant blows the sport of grand prix yacht racing has suffered in this recession. It comes at a time when budgets are being tightened across the board and less funding is becoming available from venues, this latter income representing a significant part of the MedCup’s annual war chest.

So with World Sailing Management announcing yesterday that the MedCup will not be going ahead in 2012 – what will fill the void?

Yesterday’s news didn’t come as a complete shock to those involved in the circuit who were aware of the breakdown in negotiations between WSM and Audi. It seems that initial discussions have been taking place for the last couple of weeks on a Plan B, or what might happen in 2012 if the MedCup was to disappear. Next week in Valencia meetings are due to take place between the TP52 and Soto 40 teams, their owners and their respective class associations to plan a path forwards.

While it is early days obviously, Rob Weiland, the TP52 Class Manager, expects racing in the Mediterranean next year will continue with a similar format to previous years with roughly one race per month over the summer. However this circuit is likely be set up by the TP52 class in a considerably lower key way ie without the same level of media and corporate hospitality jamboree featured at Audi MedCup events.

Weiland believes that the outcome for the MedCup may have been different had the owners and teams and the class association had more involvement in the circuit’s running.

So, if all comes to pass, it looks like racing in the Med for the TP52s and Soto 40s will return to its roots in 2012, joining in at big events such as PalmaVela and Copa del Rey – both held on the Bay of Palma. But Weiland points out that these days there aren’t that many other events in the Med like these, offering serious racing for boats such as TP52s. There is the Giraglia Rolex Cup, but the inshore racing on the Golfe de St Tropez, prior to this event's offshore race, is typically in light winds and isn’t windward-leewards. Rolex Capri Sailing Week has been superceded by the Rolex Volcano Race, and now only open to yachts of 60+ft. Equally Punta Ala is no more, while, back in Spain, Valencia’s Trofeo de la Reina is only for smaller boats.

However there are of course some prestigious yacht clubs in the Mediterranean capable of running racing for these classes such as the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda or Real Club Nautico de Palma. The YCCS in Porto Cervo is an obvious choice since it is partner in the Azzurra TP52 team that has a new TP52 in build at present.

““We most likely will do events like we have done every year with our World Championship - do a nice event together with a club or a town, but more in a club way,” says Weiland. "Not that we are not dreaming to continue with something like MedCup TV, but if you do that you want to do it right. And to do it right you need a good sum of money."

Whether the TP52s and Soto 40s will race at the same events going forwards remains to be seen at the meetings in Valencia next week, but it is likely, particularly if yacht clubs are to run stand-alone events for these classes. Weiland says that they are aiming to have a circuit pencilled in by the end of this year and fully confirmed in January by the time of Key West.

To increase numbers Weiland says he also wants to bring into the fold the IRC-ed TP52s, now fairly similar to the latest generation TP52s following the rule changes of the last two years. He believes that on average two of these boats might join the circuit at each event in 2012 – sometimes one, sometimes as many as three. However one of his jobs will be to work out a way these boats can all race against each as the IRC 52s don’t meet all the TP52 class rules. 

“I think for the class the trick is to how to make the existing fleet competitive against each other, especially boats that are three or four years old. If we can keep everyone racing with more or less level equipment, then potentially we have quite a decent fleet of boats. What isn’t going to happen with this uncertainty is us getting six or seven boats building for next year, so we have got to bank on the existing fleet or some coming back in with existing boats. That is the near future and when we have a decent schedule again and some confidence in the next few years, you might see people building boats again.”

While there have been issues between WSM and Audi, one of the problems at the core of the MedCup has always been the differing demands of fully-sponsored and privately owned teams. The MedCup was better geared up for the former but Weiland is certain the way forward, in the immediate future at least, lies with the latter.

“Right now, in the short term, you will have to bank on the private owners but that group is less easy to make attend a string of events,” he says. “It is quite easy to get private owners to come to one or two events, but to do a string of events and have an overall trophy – that is a challenge.”

TP52 events being toned down, less ‘Grand Prix’, might prove less daunting for private owners, previously unwilling to join in the racing on the MedCup due to the racing being at such a high level.

Weiland points out that the demise of the Audi MedCup is sad because the media exposure figures were getting better and better every year and a lot of investment of time, effort and money had been put in to achieve this. That was good not just for the MedCup but the sport of sailing.

Niklas Zennström, owner and helmsman of Rán, and who had his first TP52 season on the Audi MedCup in 2011, told us: "The Medcup race format and management under WSM has been second to none so its sad to see that Audi as a titles sponsor and WSM have not been able to come to an agreement. Also Audi has been such a committed sponsor. However the owners are getting together asap to work out what the right racing format should be for next year, I am pretty confident the class will be racing next year in one form or the other."

When it comes to the Soto 40s, Kevin Sproul, who runs Tony Buckingham’s Ngoni, which had its first season on the Audi MedCup this year too, also believes that the crux of the MedCup’s problems lay in the differing demands of privately owned boats and sponsored boats. He cites the example of proposals for the MedCup to visit Germany for the benefit of Audi. “That was understandable from a sponsor’s point of view, but for Tony it was quite straightforward – ‘we ain’t going. I have done all my rainy days racing in Germany. Let’s go to Porto Cervo instead.’ I think that probably there are quite a few of the owners involved in the 40s and 52s who are of that mind as well - when they go sailing, they want to go to nice places.”

Obviously if you take sponsored boats out of the equation and leave a fleet comprises entirely privately-owned boats, there are suddenly no demands for the event organiser to provide high levels of media return or corporate hospitality and as a result the cost of running events is considerably reduced. However clearly even with a circuit of privately owned boats there will be a demand for some media profile, if only to attract more boats to the fold. And this is why Rolex’s sponsorship model of sailing events works – where they take a race as it is and supply the media and TV team to get the most out of it they can, also laying on some relatively small scale corporate hospitality if they feel it is appropriate.

In terms of what Tony Buckingham and the Ngoni team want to see at next week’s meeting in Valencia is for the Soto 40 circuit in 2012 to visit some good venues where good racing can be laid on. Sproul cites Palma, Porto Cervo, Valencia and Barcelona as first choices.

“Obviously Iberdrola are involved at the moment, and I suspect they are trying to keep that all going and that might involve doing some more events in Spain, but I don’t think anyone minds that. They are usually pretty good venues wherever you sail in Spain.”

The Soto 40 has recently received ‘recognised status’ by ISAF. However at present there are strong ties between the European Soto 40 class and World Sailing Management and it seems likely that the link between the two will be reduced next week.

“The important thing is that we have to keep these owners sailing,” Sproul warns. “It is would be very easy for someone like Tony just to say ‘okay, let’s not bother’. That doesn’t help anyone and I get the feeling that there are a few people like that. Tony is dead keen to go sailing and he loves the Soto 40 and if you get a few more of these boats out there...”

With the Soto having just had its first year in Europe, numbers at present are small, but despite the poor economic climate it has shown signs of growth. In addition to Tony Buckingham’s Ngoni campaign, Iberdrola, Iberostar, run by Luís Cabiedes and Javier Banderas, and the Spanish campaign of Álex Laplaza and Toni Guiu, Pedro Mendonça’s Bigamist team from Portugal and a campaign to be fielded by Alegre mini maxi owner Andres Sorriano, are also set to join the class in 2012, while another British campaign led by Lance Adams was announced in September.

“It is a shame,” concludes Sproul. “Audi put a lot of money in over the years and made it a proper event - incredibly professionally run and well organised. We used to turn up a venue and it didn’t matter where it was in Europe, you knew when you arrived where everything was and where to go – I had never experienced that before and I suspect it would be hard to do that again.”




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