Racing, Athletes and Machines: the quest for the perfect balance

All of the participants at the Racing, Athletes and Machines debate held on the 24th of April were in agreement on one key objective; the need to find a balance between innovation, cost and safety in the search for a set of rules to regulate open format racing. The new IMOCA rules were at the heart of the discussion.

Articles APR 29, 2013 01:00

The round table took place at the Barcelona World Race Interpretation Centre with debate focussing on comparing and contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of one-design versus open classes. Representatives from the world of motor sport, including the motor sport press took part in the debate, which was streamed live over the internet. Their opinion offered an invaluable contribution to the debate, given that the structure of both sports presents certain similarities in terms of the coexistence of open and one-design classes. 

Pierre Bojic, Guillermo Altadill (see interview) and communication specialists such as Victor Lavagnini and Santi Serrat were there to represent the world of sailing. Motor sports were represented by Javier Alonso, Joan Villadelprat and Joan Porcar (see detailed profiles of the participants in the news article from 16.04.13). 

The debate kicked off with an outline of the current situation found in ocean sailing and relevant data on the current state of one-design classes by Santi Serrat. The Editorial Director of the FNOB also ran through the statistics relating to the number of abandonments of round the world competitions in the IMOCA Class (the Vendée Globe and Barcelona World Race) focussing particularly on mast and keel problems (see video). Download presentation. 

After a video link-up wiht the IMOCA Class president Luc Talbourdet, who summed up the new rules set out for the class following the IMOCA Annual General Meeting on the 18th of April, the debate centred around two key subject areas. It began by dealing with the organisation of open and one-design competitions (see video). The second part of the round table dealt mainly with the pairing of the athlete with the machine (see video). Here follows a summary of the ideas and conclusions reached at the round table debate:

Estrella Damm Sailing Team

Maintaining the spirit of the competitions  

The first block of the debate dealt with the current situation in racing and the impact of restrictive machine design measures. Pierre Bojic underlined the values at the heart of ocean sailing, which go right back to the sport's origins in the Sixties and he spoke about how those values still hold true today. “In the beginning the boats were adapted to each race”, he said and gave some examples of Éric Tabarly's innovational boats. The director of Pen Duick expressed his agreement with the idea of classes moving closer to a one- design concept which, according to him, is easier to understand from a safety point of view than from a purely financial standpoint. However, he also highlighted the importance of maintaining the level of technological innovation in ocean racing, as a source of evolutionary ideas. 

“Every regatta must maintain its spirit and the ideas at its origin”, said Bojic, who added that for organisers what really matters is creating an event with value, recognition and prestige, to convince sailors to take part and allow its popularity to be developed. He also highlighted the plethora of possibilities currently on offer to sponsors in the world of ocean sailing.  On the same track, Joan Porcar cited the Dakar Rally as an example of a competition which has maintained its core values as an adventure open to a broad array of sportsmen and women.  

The role of technological innovation in competitions

How will the one-designs develop if the open classes are becoming ever more restrictive? This question reflects one of the subjects of most concern in the world of sailing; how to maintain technological innovation whilst reigning in the cost of projects. Santi Serrat outlined how the open classes began and how they had introduced innovations in ocean sailing, resulting in the creation of recent one-designs such as the MOD70 and the VOR65.  

Here Javier Alonso pointed out that in the world of motor cycling, innovation is very much focussed on the Moto GP class and he gave examples of how this technological leadership has evolved over recent decades. “When we came up with the idea of the Moto2 category to take the place of the 250ccs we decided that we'd have a free chassis but the same engine for all; and we've managed to get to the point where any team can compete under the same set of conditions, avoiding the situation we had previously where the winners were always the same. In the Moto3 class we've given the freedom to the engines and now we're looking for solutions to solve the issue of the same brands dominating racing. In Moto GP we've got an open concept and right now we're working on some rules for 2017 to try to achieve a more equal playing field; although we do understand that the teams from the manufacturers will always be ahead as they've got the means to really work the rules. For now we're looking at possibly making manufacturers produce a minimum number of machines to facilitate access for other teams”.  

Joan Porcar questioned the importance that is being given to technology in the spread of the popularity of motor sports and sailing and he highlighted the danger that limiting technology might pose, as it could even drive up budgets: “Technology constantly surprises us, of course, but is that really necessary? What also often happens is that when regulation limits technology the sport becomes more expensive because more money is then invested into other developments which might mark out the difference”

Along the same lines Pierre Bojic thinks that it is important to give sailors complete freedom to innovate and he gave the example of the evolution in terms of finishing times for regattas such as the Route du Rhum, where the time taken to complete the regatta has gone from 24 days to 7; and the Vendée Globe where 120 days have been driven down to under 80 days. “It's extraordinary” said Bojic. “and we have to remember that it is in human nature to always push further and we mustn't hold back that desire to innovate. It is also worth highlighting that whenever restrictions have been put in place they have almost always resulted in initiatives coming from another direction, such as with the Atlantic records or the Jules Verne Trophy”.

Competición, deportistas y máquinas

Guillermo Altadill outlined the balance which in his opinion the structure of the fleets and  ocean regattas should strive for: “We've now got challenges such as the Jules Verne Trophy where totally open concept boats have managed to drive the world record down by 14 days in just eight years; and that is perfect, and it means that there is technology, innovation and imagination thanks to the designers and their work with the sailors themselves. Then, we've got the one-designs for the evolution of the younger sailors; the Mini series and the Figaro. These classes must allow for low-budget projects and create a context in which the sailors must really put in the effort to be the best and that happens thanks to the fact that they are all racing the same boats. Then there is the IMOCA Class, where you have the opportunity to develop your own ideas but within some rational limitations, given that in some cases prohibiting things made the problem worse; for example if you prohibit a very expensive material, then research and development will go into creating something else which might be a lot more expensive. It's good that the IMOCA Class will continue to be open but with restrictions and it's the best solution, better than taking the one-design route”.Guillermo Altadill also highlighted the importance of safety: “What mustn't happen is that things like titanium keels are built which are not only very expensive but also unsafe. In ocean sailing safety must take priority over technological innovation”. 

Sport and Industry 

Why is it that in motor sports vehicle manufacturers are willing to invest in top level competition but in sailing they are not? That question, posed by journalist Germán de Soler brought to the table a distinct difference between the socioeconomic structures of these two sports.  

Joan Villadelprat went on to explain that Formula 1 has always been a testing ground for developments which may later filter through into the mass consumer market, but many of the brands had also abandoned the race track because they weren't able to make the most of the R+D side of things due to the constant move towards more restrictive regulation. “The quest is for a balance”, said the engineer, “but it is important that technological progress is not blocked”. 

Pierre Bojic explained the current situation in sailing in terms of the issue: “It's true that sailing doesn't have the same industrial backbone. The leading builders in the market are not involved in top level competition; that is to say that there is no industrial sector for ocean classes. The industry benefits from what regattas bring and they are laboratories for experimentation but there is no direct relationship and that's a shame. The yacht industry doesn't have the financial means available to support top level competition, although competition helps the industry”

The athlete-machine pairing

Santi Serrat explained how ocean sailors need to have an incredibly extensive knowledge of their machines in the open classes whilst Joan Villadelprat pointed out that this wasn't the case in the world of motor sport in classes such as Formula 1, where the pilots don't need to be engineers, but what matters is their specific interpretation of the characteristics of the care. Villadelprat, who is extremely knowledgeable on the subject of top-flight motor sports, said: “Some 500 people are involved in building the chassis or the engine of a Formula 1 car. Here the engineers rule and the driver merely provides pointers”. 

Guillermo Altadill explained the total contrast to this in ocean sailing. He underlined the difference between sheer technical design by the engineers and the intuitive role of a sailor, which is absolutely crucial in the final development of the yacht: “The skipper give the designer his feedback and there must be a very united balance between intuition and science”. 

Another factor is the ability of the athlete to solve technical problems during competition. In ocean sailing that is a fundamental characteristic of any skipper. Altadill said: “50% of  success in a regatta such as the Barcelona World Race or the Vendée Globe lies in the skipper's ability to carry out on board repairs: to laminate a sail, fix the drinking water machine or solve any electronic or rigging issues...”. 

The 'human factor' was held up to be at risk if the one-design concept were to become increasing popular. Journalist Kiku Cusí explained the importance of knowing how to maintain the spirit of the 'human factor'. He also underlined that there was as much sporting value in the spectacular struggle for the top spot in the most recent Vendée Globe as there was in the battle to finish the competition for Alessandro di Bendetto. “If the race had been on one-design yachts maybe di Bendetto might not have been able to take part as he might not have been able to meet the budget”. 

The fact that low-budget projects can go up against the elite has been a defining characteristic of the IMOCA Class up until now. According to Santi Serrat the fact that these elite boats can go head to head in the same regatta as more modest yachts is something that must be protected: “Everyone knows that some boats will finish these round the world races 15 or even 30 days later, but they bring with them an inescapable and absolutely necessary human story”. 

Joan Porcar said that the only real parallel to be found in that sense with motor racing was in adventure rallies such as the Dakar Rally: “They have a lot in common with ocean sailing in terms of philosophy and financial means; it's an open competition and there are a diverse selection of teams competing”. To round off the debate there was a unanimous agreement that irregardless of technological development, the athlete's safety was always the priority.