Ainslie's UK challenger flounders in first America's Cup warm-up

Auckland (AFP) –


Briton Ben Ainslie made a disastrous start to his America's Cup challenge Thursday when the sailing legend's big-budget 'flying' yacht broke down during a warm-up event in Auckland.

Defending champion Team New Zealand produced a strong opening performance in perfect conditions, while American Magic and Italy's Luna Rossa showed they would be competitive.

But it was Ainslie's INEOS Team UK that provided the main talking point after failing to finish either of its two heats.

One of the high-tech foil arms that lift the 23-metre (75-foot) yachts above the surface of the water became stuck during its first race against the Americans, leaving it floundering in the water.

The foil appeared to seize completely in the next race against Luna Rossa, forcing Ainslie's yacht to retire from the heat and call for a tow back to the boatshed.

INEOS Team UK is believed to have one of the largest budgets of the four America's Cup syndicates, reportedly bankrolled by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe to the tune of 110 million pounds (US$150 million).

Yet the syndicate has been dogged by problems, despite recruiting an elite crew led by Ainslie, who has won four Olympic gold sailing medals and was part of the victorious Oracle Team USA America's Cup campaign in 2013.

Ainslie admitted this week "we have some catching up to do" to challenge for the prestigious 'Auld Mug'.

Elsewhere, it was fun on the water as the three other teams trialled new technology and techniques in the warm-up races, which have no bearing on the America's Cup proper.

As thousands of people watched in sunny conditions from spectator craft and the Auckland shore, Team NZ blitzed Luna Rossa in the first competitive race staged between two AC76-class yachts.

The New Zealanders won by three minutes 13 seconds, with helmsman Peter Burling saying it was rewarding to see Auckland embrace the vision he had for the event when Team NZ earned the right to host it by winning in Bermuda in 2017.

"It's great the amount of Kiwis that have come out," he said.

"(It's like) when we pictured this race course all those years ago and imagined what it could be like with all the boats around, it's amazing to see it as a reality."

Luna Rossa looked significantly faster in its walkover against Ainslie's yacht and American Magic beat Team NZ by 12 seconds in the final race of the day.

There will be two more days of racing heats before a knockout event called the Christmas Race on Sunday.

The racing gets serious in January, when the three challengers compete for the Prada Cup, with the winner earning the right to take on Team NZ for the America's Cup in March.