Oracle Team USA, the defending champion of the America’s Cup, has been given an “unprecedented” penalty for allegedly making illegal boat modifications during earlier exhibition sailing races.
The Oracle team has been penalized two points in the upcoming final round of the regatta in San Francisco, according to a ruling released Tuesday by the America’s Cup International Jury, a five-person panel tasked with resolving disputes over race rules.
The team allegedly placed additional weight in the forward king posts of its AC45 boats during America’s Cup World Series exhibition races in 2012 and earlier this year.
The boats are smaller versions of the 72-foot catamarans being used in the America’s Cup Finals, which begins Saturday between Oracle and Emirates Team New Zealand.
In a 14-page ruling issued Tuesday, the jury said, “the seriousness of the breaches cannot be understated.”
Oracle team officials asserted that the modification was not performance-enhancing, but the jury did not find that argument credible.
“The Jury holds the view that each of the modifications were made in the belief that they would enhance performance,” the panel wrote in its ruling.
“The performance enhancement would likely be small, but making many small enhancements is the nature of winning races at the top level,” the jury wrote.
The two-point penalty means Oracle will now have to win 11 races in the America’s Cup Finals, while Team New Zealand will only have to win nine.
The jury also has excluded one Oracle sailor and two members of the team’s shore crew from further participation in the regatta, and ordered the team to pay a fine of $250,000.
Team CEO Russell Coutts said in a statement that the rules infractions “involved only a few of our 130 team members, and were done without the knowledge of either our team’s management or the skippers who were driving the boats.”
Coutts said, “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 practice and get ready.”
The ruling is the latest problem to plague the America’s Cup races in San Francisco.
Regatta and city officials had initially estimated more than a dozen teams would compete for the international trophy, but the high price to build the 72-foot boats led to only three teams challenging Oracle.
The design of the boats has also prompted criticism, particularly after a British sailor on Sweden-based Artemis Racing died when the team’s catamaran capsized during a practice run in May. The death prompted regatta officials to implement multiple new safety reforms for the races.
The downsizing of the regatta has also led to sparse crowds and struggles by race officials to raise enough money to recoup San Francisco for the city’s costs related to the races.
“It looks like this event is cursed,” said San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos, one of the local legislators most vocal in his criticism of the regatta thus far.
Avalos said the cheating scandal was an example of “the chickens coming home to roost” for Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who owns Oracle Team USA and had the right as winner of the previous America’s Cup to choose the boat design for this race.
Ellison “created a boat design that not even his team could fulfill,” Avalos said.
The America’s Cup Finals begin Saturday with two races at 1:10 p.m. and 2:10 p.m.
More information about the races can be found online at www.americascup.com.
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News