Wind of change

Can motor sport help Olympic legend Sir Ben Ainslie win the America’s Cup for Britain? He swaps the high seas for race track to find out more with Prodrive at Silverstone
Writer Ed Foster

Sir Ben Ainslie looks as though he’s just been released from a tumble dryer. He might be the most successful sailor in Olympic history, but he emerges wide-eyed after a few laps with two-time Le Mans class winner Darren Turner in an Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT4. A large intake of breath signals that it’s his turn to take the wheel around the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit.

Ainslie is hardly a newcomer to high velocity, of course. America’s Cup boats fly along at 55mph, above the water, and can travel at three times the wind’s speed. That doesn’t seem rational, but the introduction of a new design has made it possible. The latest sails are rigid, rather than traditional cloth, and use the same aerodynamic technology as aircraft. To give you an idea of scale, the catamaran’s rigid sails are the same size as the wing of a Boeing 747…

Why is sailing’s popularity rising so? “Well,” he says, “as a country we’ve done OK in the Olympics and there have been other real stars, such as Ellen MacArthur [who broke the world record for fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005].” And this from a man who has won four gold medals and a silver at the Olympics, as well as eight sailing world championships. Not to mention his efforts in the 2013 America’s Cup race, between Oracle Team USA and Team New Zealand. The latter won four of the first five races, at which point Oracle made the decision to modify its boat and bring in Ainslie, as tactician. They promptly slumped to an eight-one deficit before recovering to win nine-eight – one of the finest comebacks in the history of sport.

Ainslie has been credited as the man who made the difference on the American boat. Now he has ambitions to win the cup – one of the oldest competitions in international sport – at the helm of a British entry. That would be a notable first and the crowning achievement of the sailor’s incredible career.

Adrian Newey’s long-professed interest in the America’s Cup and his impending divorce from Formula 1 has led to an approach from Ainslie. But the motor sport connection could stretch beyond the involvement of the aerodynamicist. Prodrive, the globally respected motor sport engineering specialist, also has an interest in the project thanks to its founder and Aston Martin chairman David Richards, who was inspired by the America’s Cup spectacle last year.

“I’ve known Ben for years,” says the sailing fanatic as we stand outside The Wing. “His family comes from near where we have a house and hotel in Cornwall, so I met him through mutual friends down there.” Richards is learning to sail “in a very amateurish way” and suggested to Ainslie that he should make his track debut in an Aston racer. “One thing led to another – and here he is.”

While Ainslie – who’s kitted out in Marcus Grönholm’s plain white race overalls – hasn’t previously been on a circuit, he did spend an evening at Darren Turner’s Base Performance Simulators business. “That was great,” says Ainslie during a short break between stints.

“I think it made a huge difference. It would have been very hard without that.

“It’s interesting, though, because there is actually a bit of crossover from sailing to racing in terms of steering the car and balancing it. It’s the same with a boat – if you use too much rudder you can stall it, which is similar to losing grip in a car.”

Conversation soon turns to Chris Hoy – an Olympian who hopes he’s on the road to the Le Mans 24 Hours with Nissan – but despite Ainslie enjoying his day in the Aston, he’s not planning to switch careers any time soon.

“I doubt I’ll be the next Olympian to forge a career in motor sport,” he says with a smile. “You’ll have to ask Darren.”

“Within two or three laps he was in the groove and knew where to go,” says Turner, who was sitting in the GT4’s passenger seat. “Because it’s an open track day, there are lots of people doing random stuff and it’s easy to follow them. They really are all over the place. The fact that Ben kept to the line we wanted, and was able to repeat that lap after lap, was really good. Towards the end his performance was terrific.

“The whole feeling of balancing the car, and knowing where he needed to place it, is something he nailed,” adds Turner, making what some mechanics refer to as a rare cup of tea. “I would be more than happy to say ‘fella, off you go, you don’t need me here’. He’s going to make mistakes, but only little ones. He’s shown he’s not going to be an idiot.

“One of the most interesting bits for me was that when you stop and have a little chat you ask ‘do you remember that bit of that corner?’ and he immediately replies saying ‘Yes, I was doing that’. He’s totally in control of what’s going on and actually pretty good to coach.”

Richards joins in and mentions his next plan to us. “You’ll have to cover the return match when we put Darren in a yacht.”

“I’m doing what?” replies Turner. “No one told me about that. I’ll be off… I think my work’s done for the day.”

“We’re going to get you sailing later in the summer,” persists Richards.

“Perfect, that would be great. One of these big superyachts with girls on it?”

“No, we need you hanging over the side of a proper boat.”

“That doesn’t sound so great. Perhaps I can just do the steering?”

Actually, Turner would probably have little trouble finding his sea legs on a racing yacht. His instincts as a professional sportsman would kick in (eventually!) and he’d soon be keen to rise to the competitive challenge.

The same can be said for the motor sport companies out there who have already expanded their horizons. Take Prodrive, which away from the race tracks is currently working on the Mars Rover – the vehicle that’s planned to explore the Red Planet in three years.

“That’s being designed and manufactured to a 20-micron tolerance,” says Richards. “Where would you get that done? You have to come to the motor sport industry in Britain.”

It’s exactly such thinking that might mean this day out at Silverstone develops into more than just a change of pace for Ainslie. “I saw the America’s Cup yachts in San Francisco last year,” says Richards. “I thought ‘there must be some crossover from motor sport to this environment’. So we’ve started those conversations with Ben to see if there are any areas where our expertise, our experience, can perhaps assist him.”

Ainslie is open to the idea. “There’s definitely crossover with the motor sport industry,” he says, “because these boats have a lot more hydraulic systems and controls for things like the daggerboards [the centre boards that drop down from hulls].

“It’s less about hydrodynamic drag and more about aerodynamic drag on yachts nowadays, so it’s similar there as well. A company like Prodrive has so much experience compared with the sailing world. It makes sense for us to tap into that and save ourselves a lot of time and energy, learning from the mistakes that these guys have been through.”

“I think,” adds Richards, “we probably underestimate just how far advanced the top end of motor sport is in its use of materials and its understanding of a whole range of technologies that no one else ever pushes to the limit. In the main, you only need to look at our use of hydraulics or electronics in race cars to see they’re at the leading edge.

“I’m sure there’s some potential for carryover and adoption of ideas with the sailing world, even if it’s just to challenge convention. In any case, I am sure the regulations will ban some of the ideas, but they’re worth exploring…”

So how about an Ainslie/Newey partnership with support from Prodrive, perhaps with the backing of Red Bull, to challenge for sailing’s greatest prize? It’s a tantalising prospect.