Match point: Team NZ leads Luna Rossa 6-3 in America’s Cup

Match point Team New Zealand. The America’s Cup Defender beat Italian challenger Luna Rossa by 30 seconds in the only race that could be sailed Tuesday to move ahead 6-3 in the first-to-seven-win series in Auckland.

For the third race in a row, Team New Zealand came from behind to beat Luna Rossa, delivering a crushing blow to the morale of the Italian team which has been constantly competitive in the 36th America’s Cup match but plagued by bad luck or bad decisions.

Luna Rossa led around the first four marks on the six-leg course but not by more than 9 seconds. On a day of light and shifty conditions, when the race course had to be set and re-set, Team New Zealand picked up a right shift on the last beat to snatch the lead and the race.

Throughout the afternoon the breeze — sometimes full at 15 knots, at other times light and puffy at 7 knots — tracked from southwest to west and back on what is known as the Stadium Course. Course C is closest to the land of the five Cup course, overlooked by North Head and visible to traffic on Auckland’s busy Tamaki drive.

The start of the second of the day’s two races was delayed as the breeze again flitted about, defying the match committee’s efforts to set a true course. Finally the race committee admitted defeat and as the wind again wheeled to the west, the 10th race was postponed.

The teams will return Wednesday in what is likely to be a more stable breeze for what could be the last rites of the 36th Cup match, in the same area in which Team New Zealand beat Luna Rossa 20 years ago to defend the Cup in the 30th match. Italy has never won the America’s Cup.

Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling was philosophical that the match will go on for at least another day.

“This team’s been in this position before. We just want to keep improving, keep moving forward and we’re really excited about another race,” Burling said. “We know that one was a pretty close one, so we’re going to have to sail just as well in the next one.”

What racing was possible Tuesday was worth the price of admission. The ninth race was the closest of the series, and by winning it New Zealand moved to match point.

The teams almost couldn’t be separated on the first beat and rounded the first mark simultaneously, Luna Rossa credited with a 1-second advantage.

The Italians doggedly protected their lead and at the first leeward mark the boats were overlapped and Luna Rossa, with right of way, was able to hold Team New Zealand away from the mark before rounding with an 8-second lead.

New Zealand couldn’t gain upwind as the Italians made use of their high mode to lead by 9 seconds after the second beat.

At the final leeward mark the Italian boat was only three seconds ahead and made the mistake of allowing New Zealand separation, heading to the left while Team New Zealand took the right.

On the first two occasions the boats converged, Luna Rossa was just ahead and was able to tack ahead of Team New Zealand which headed back to the right. But after the second cross, New Zealand picked up a shift on the right and overtook.

By the windward mark it was 19 seconds ahead, having shown a speed advantage when allowed to sail its own race. That lead extended on the last downwind as Luna Rossa watched the race slip away.

The wind lightened as the race continued and a mistake was always likely on a course full of wind holes and patches.

“That was a painful one,” Luna Rossa co-helmsman Francesco Bruni said. “We couldn’t get every shift right and we missed the opportunity, but we have to think about the next race.

“I think we did a fantastic race honestly. No regrets.”

Team New Zealand pulled another of its escapes. It achieved the first pass of the regatta to win the seventh race on Monday, then won the eighth race after splashing down and trailing by more than four minutes.

New Zealand was able to come back in the eighth race when Luna Rossa experienced the same issue at the last windward mark, turning a 4-minute, 8-second deficit into a 4 minute, 27-second lead and eventually an almost four-minute win in one of the most extraordinary races in America’s Cup history.

Again Team New Zealand was able to come from behind on Tuesday. The evidence throughout the match has been that it has the faster boat but with foibles. It sails lower and faster upwind which means it has to cover more distance and its race boat Te Rehutai tacks more grudgingly in light winds than Luna Rossa.

The thousands of fans, Kiwi and Italian, who watched the race from vantage points ashore or on big screens at the America’s Cup village were transfixed throughout the ninth race. Race telemetry showed many technical lead changes, when one boat or the other seemed to edge ahead, but those changes could only be proven in the crosses and Luna Rossa mostly crossed in front.

“It was a pretty tight race all in all and one little right shift up that last beat really decided it for us,” Burling said.

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