Oracle face uphill Cup defence
America's Cup (Gallo Images)
San Francisco - Scandal-hit Oracle Team USA face an uphill climb to defend their America's Cup crown against Team New Zealand starting on Saturday in San Francisco after the title-holders were docked two points for cheating during preliminary regattas.
Defending champions Oracle additionally had two sailors and two shore members banned and were slapped with a $250 000 fine after the team made illegal modifications to prototype boats it sailed in the America's Cup World Series.
"The incidents are serious and unprecedented in the America's Cup," the jury report said after Oracle were sanctioned with the heaviest punishment in the 162-year history of sailing's marquee event.
"The seriousness of the breaches cannot be understated," it added.
Oracle responded with chief executive Russell Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner, saying: "The rules infractions involved only a few of our 130 team members, and were done without the knowledge of either of our team's management or the skippers who were driving the boats.
"While we disagree with the unprecedented penalties imposed by the Jury, we have no choice but to make the necessary changes to personnel on our race boat and do our best to use the next four days for the new team to practise and get ready for the start of the 34th America's Cup."
Oracle will start the best-of-17 series - held against the backdrop of Alcatraz and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge - on minus-2 points, making it that much harder to retain their title.
"There's no question in my mind that Team New Zealand are the clear favourites here. We are in an underdog position right now," said Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill.
"(But) we will come out fighting - these guys will fight to the very end. They will be hungry for it."
Despite the expulsion of primary wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder and grinder Matt Mitchell's four-race suspension, software billionaire Larry Ellison's team can still rely on the talented Australian Spithill, who became the event's youngest champion, aged just 30, following Oracle's defeat of Swiss team Alinghi in 2010.
Further strengthening their ranks is American tactician and 11-time world champion John Kostecki, who also has a silver medal from the 1988 Olympics and the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race title to his credit, while Oracle's other helmsman is British four-time Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie.
Their challengers, Team New Zealand, romped to an emphatic 7-1 victory over Italian outfit Luna Rossa in an underwhelming Louis Vuitton Cup to progress to the showpiece for the fifth time in the last six contests.
Despite the farcical nature of the challenger series, which featured just three teams compared to the 11 that competed in 2007 and prompted complaints from unhappy sponsors, the Kiwis gained valuable in-competition experience that could give them a further head start over their beleaguered rivals, who have relied solely on training runs thus far.
Oracle attracted criticism for their decision to race AC72s - expensive, 22-metre (72-foot) wing-sail catamarans that can travel faster than 50 miles per hour - as prohibitive costs kept many competitors away and sparked concerns over their safety.
Swedish challengers Artemis saw crew member Andrew Simpson, a British Olympian, die during a training accident in May.
However, both teams will be eager to move beyond that tragedy and countless controversies as the quest for sport's oldest international trophy comes to the fore this weekend.
"It's really important, I mean really important," said Team New Zealand managing director Grant Dalton of the importance of taking the prestigious cup back to the small island nation.
"The team understands that. The culture of the team is based on a non-selfish attitude of trying to take the Cup away from San Francisco, as nice a city as it is."
Team New Zealand in action (Getty Images)