Photo: Alexis Courcoux

IMOCA 60s to go one design for 2016?

IMOCA President Luc Talbourdet tells us more and we get the views of Denis Horeau and skippers Mike Golding, Alex Thomson and Francois Gabart

Tuesday December 13th 2011, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

As someone who enjoys watching the technical evolution of boats, the possibility of the IMOCA class going one design for the next Vendee Globe cycle, as was announced in October, seems abhorrent. However we remember what happened to the ORMA 60s, where indecision by the class over how to put their house in order led to their rapid demise – from a record 18 of the superb 60ft trimarans that entered the 2002 Route du Rhum to the world’s most exciting race boat class being defunct five years later...

So in this age of austerity, and with the price tag of new builds escalating to around 3.5-4 million Euros (compared to 2.5-3 million Euros for the last generation), it is necessary for the IMOCA class to reflect these more chaste economic times. For unfortunately the writing is already on the wall: Compared to the last Vendee Globe with its 30 strong fleet and 20 new builds, at present there are just 15 entries for next year’s Vendee Globe (although a few more are expected) of which just six are new.

“We want to increase the reliability and we want to decrease or maintain costs, so we have to look after every option and obviously one design is one of the two options,” explains IMOCA class President Luc Talbourdet.

In fact the situation with IMOCA is not the same as it was for ORMA. The 60ft trimaran fleet was almost exclusively French (in fact almost exclusively Breton) and the extent of their race area was the Atlantic Ocean, whereas for the IMOCA 60s it is the globe. For the ORMA 60s, some disastrous decisions were made over their inshore-offshore nature and the boats were allowed to get too close to the cutting edge and as a result there were many many breakages.

In comparison the IMOCA class is already very much more international and while the Vendee Globe is still the most important event in the class, they have the beginnings of a circuit with the Barcelona World Race gaining some traction along with other more established events such as the Transat Jacques Vabre and Route du Rhum and Rolex Fastnet Race.

But still change is essential for the IMOCA class and Talbourdet states it is essential that a turnover, in terms of skippers and teams, is allowed to take place. Already in this cycle many of the old hands such as Roland Jourdain and Michel Desjoyeaux have moved on and there is another crop of 50 year olds for whom the 2012 Vendee Globe may be their last solo lap in the IMOCA class. “We must increase accessibility to the class, because it is natural that skippers after 10 years don’t want to sail solo anymore.”

So at present IMOCA has two proposals on the table – one is to have a much tighter box rule, the other for a one design. It is important to note that these will apply only to new builds post 2012 – the existing IMOCA 60 fleet will still be able to compete in the 2016 Vendee Globe.

The aim of both proposals will be to create a new generation of boats which perform at a similar level to (or slightly better than) the existing generation, for as Talbourdet states, the class’ one big asset at present is its existing fleet and this must not be written off in a single stroke. A further tightening of the existing box rule would include, for example much stricter limits on the rig. However personally Talbourdet doesn’t hold out much hope for this: “It is very difficult. When you look at the Volvo it is a box rule which is very tight, and you look at the budgets and the evolution - you don’t meet the objective.” He reckons the one design is the only viable option.

We put it to Talbourdet that the IMOCA class might consider a similar set-up to the Minis where there are Proto (one-off) and Series (one design) classes. However he dismissed this. “No, all the skippers want to be in a position to win.”

Naturally the proposal has come in for much criticism, but Talbourdet rebukes this: “People say it is a class of evolution and innovation, but the world has changed and they are not the ones who put in the money. It is also a way to tell the sponsors ‘the world has changed, so just like you in your company, we are taking into account this new situation’.”

A target budget for building the new one design is 2.2-2.5 million Euros however Talbourdet points out that, while that is the objective, it is difficult to pin down an exact price because the boat has yet to be defined. “The only objective is to be as fast as today’s fleet. Not much faster and not slower.”

We point out to Talbourdet that it is still possible to be competitive in the IMOCA 60 fleet in an old generation boat – the best example being Roland Jourdain’s victory in the 2010 Route du Rhum in the boat that is now Alex Thomson’s latest Hugo Boss, while Vincent Riou’s PRB (formerly Michel Desjoyeaux’s 2000 winner) came first in the 2004 Vendee Globe. However he points out these are isolated instances and the top guys in the class always prefer to build new.

A decision by the IMOCA class will come to a head in January at their next class meeting. However if the new one design does get voted in, he believes that they will have two or three examples on the start line of the Barcelona World Race in 2014.

Denis Horeau, Race Director of the 2012 Vendee Globe, favours the one design proposal (having experience as a long term Race Director of La Solitaire du Figaro). This is partly because of the economic crisis but also because he feels that the Vendee Globe is entering a third era. Since the first Vendee Globe in 1989 he describes the races prior to 2000 being the era of ‘discovery’ and this was followed with the likes of Michel Desjoyeaux, Ellen MacArthur, Roland Jourdain, etc who were the first in the ‘competition’ era of the race. Now he believes we are coming into a third era, with a second wave of ultra-competitive sailors.

“We have a new generation coming with Francois Gabart [skipper of MACIF]. So we have to figure out a new style of boat and budgets for the boat, which are cheaper with less differences between them.”

Horeau believes that the race organisers should have a stronger hand in the decisions made by the class. “We have to integrate in the decisions the organisers and the sponsors so we can create a new way of managing the class - this is vital to increase the number of boats and sailors, to attract young sailors who are knocking at the door, but they cannot open the door at present because of the price. We have to put around the table, organisers - because they know exactly what they want to do with their races - and sponsors, because they can help with the international side of the races and they can give input, not into the design of the boats, but the program of the class. So our next challenge is to re-organise the class, the boats, the sails, the type of boats, the program, the championship and everything.”

While Talbourdet states that there is agreement in the class for these moves, this wasn’t the case from the few we spoke to.

Having just come into the class with a new sponsor, MACIF skipper Francois Gabart wasn’t keen on going one design: “I don’t think it is a good solution for us. I don’t think it is something we want to do. We are trying to have a strong fleet - we want to have 15, 20, 25 boats with good projects - not 100 boats. At the moment we have good projects with good sponsors. In the Vendee you have some people who are not really professional sailors and it is good that they do the Vendee. So I don’t think it is a good idea, but I haven’t considered it very carefully. The only thing I could be afraid of is that we are taking a big decision too fast. It is not something to do in just a few months. There are a few people on the IMOCA board who have been working on it for a few months, but other people in the fleet haven’t had so much time. For example for a sponsor like MACIF which has just arrived in the IMOCA class, they are thinking the class should calm down a little bit.”

Antoine Gautier, who works on the technical side of the MACIF project believes that there is still much that can be done to the present IMOCA 60 rule to curb costs. There is also a distinct absence of materials limitations – as best exemplified by Safran fitting a new keel made of titanium. Limitations could also be placed on the sail material.

Presumably a sensible move would be to limit keel construction to stainless steel and like the Volvo 70 rule, insist they be solid. Gautier points out that you could even make aspects of the boat one design, such as the keel and daggerboards although designers would still have the scope alter their positioning, etc. “There is not much to gain with the new sections and it costs a lot to develop them. Just working with a section you might gain a 1% performance upwind and then you aren’t using them downwind...”

Unfortunately if the IMOCA class does go one design, there will then be no development class larger than a Mini in the grand prix short-handed offshore racing world.

Hugo Boss skipper Alex Thomson says he isn’t certain what the best course is. He points out that unlike the ORMA 60 class, where Groupama 2 ended up cleaning up, none of the new IMOCA 60s are noticeably faster than the others. And certainly the performance of Safran with her titanium keel hasn’t been out-standing in the Transat Jacques Vabre or currently in the B to B.

“For me the problem isn’t the cost. Today you can go and buy a reasonably good boat that is competitive, modify it and do a good Vendee. A lot of it is the economics and the class itself isn’t terribly strong. But imagine if we were sitting here now and there were 12 Kingfishers sitting here...”

Gamesa skipper Mike Golding believes that the announcement of the class possibly going one design was premature. “The senior part of the board have the opinion that we should do this, but I think it is a bit early for that, because we have 13 good boats sat on the dock here all different and one has to wonder whether this isn’t a knee jerking reaction. And historically one designs have been a disaster in oceanic racing. Only two one designs have ever worked and one was Challenge yacht and the other were Clippers. Even the MOD70 could still have problems, although I feel they are on a roll.”

Golding agrees with Thomson that a problem with one designs is that they can get locked in time. So clearly if a one design is proposed, then there must be clear ways it can be turboed in the future. “You don’t want to have the situation where cruising boats would start to look flasher than racing boats.

Golding agrees with Gautier that there are many aspects of the boats that could go one design – steel keel foils, engine and drive packages, etc. However like Denis Horeau, Golding also believes that IMOCA has a problem with its infrastructure and the one design issue won’t be resolved until this is solved.


Latest Comments

  • martin.oughton 15/12/2011 - 20:22

    David Raison has just brilliantly demonstrated what is so good about development classes. Bravo David! IMOCA class should not be one design, if they want to curb costs take a look at the rules. Material restrictions, ISO and GL standards only limit the performance of the yacht not the cost of the campaign. If they are serious about controlling costs then enforce some resource restrictions. F1 does this but badly, several teams spend over the limit but say catch me if you can and then fine me when you do. Sailing isn't F1 no matter how you look at it which is why I believe a resource restriction/budget cap would be worth investigating.
  • HieldM 14/12/2011 - 15:22

    The one design option should be restricted to 2016 and reviewed after this. Perhaps a choice of two design could be available for 2016, not the cost savings of a one one design but cheaper than the situation now, however there are a number of options that can be considered, it's finding the right balance in getting enough competitive boats on the start line and cost, which may just see a few top boats out classing all other boats.
  • rmb 13/12/2011 - 17:02

    The last paragraphs (Mike Golding's opinion) are the most realistic perspective. One design is a fashion in france due to the MOD and the Figaro, but there are no one designs in the top echelon of any other mechanical sport.

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