VALENCIA, Spain (Reuters) - Ed Baird will helm the untested SUI100 for Alinghi when the Swiss syndicate begins its defence of the America’s Cup against Team New Zealand.
The first race of the best-of-nine series begins on Saturday and will mark a racing debut for SUI100, the most recent boat of its class to be built and widely expected to be the fastest yet.
Team New Zealand won the toss and elected to take the favoured starboard side at the start.
The choice of Baird as helm, announced by veteran skipper Brad Butterworth on Friday along with the rest of Alinghi’s 17-man team, follows fierce internal competition for the role with U.S. Virgin Islander Peter Holmberg.
Baird, 49, has been training head-to-head with Holmberg, although the decision that he was to take the wheel was made six weeks ago, Butterworth said.
A former world champion in the Laser and J24 classes, Baird is on his fourth America’s Cup.
With the threat of the 32nd event becoming a grudge match between Alinghi and Team New Zealand never far below the surface, Swiss syndicate head Ernesto Bertarelli talked of the Kiwis exacting “revenge” on the crew that beat them in 2003.
But crew member Bertarelli, a Swiss billionaire who has bankrolled Alinghi and engineered a reshaping of the way the America’s Cup is contested, later said he had meant to say a “rematch” of the 2003 final, which Alinghi swept 5-0.
Both teams were full of praise for each other at a joint press conference, with 34-year-old Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker in relaxed mood, sporting his team’s uniform T-shirt and shorts and a pair of black flip-flops.
“We’re very pleased with the way things have been going,” said Barker, who steered Team New Zealand to a stunning 5-0 victory over Luna Rossa in the Louis Vuitton Cup, giving the Kiwi crew the right to challenge Alinghi for the “Auld Mug”.
Sitting on stage below the impressive piece of silverware which his campaign brought back to Europe for the first time in 152 years, Bertarelli admitted this time it would be harder.
“This year is much more difficult for us. In 2003, we had an almost perfect run. It’s always much harder to win a second time than the first time,” he said.
“In 2003, no-one was expecting us to come out and win. Now...they are watching our every move and even copying us.”
Baird, a three-times world match racing champion, will be joined on board by Alinghi stalwarts including Butterworth and four other former Team New Zealand crew who set up Alinghi for the 2003 America’s Cup.
The sixth member of that core, helmsman and skipper Russell Coutts, was sacked by Alinghi in 2004.
Additional reporting by Alexander Smith