By BERNIE WILSON
Skipper Max Sirena of Italy’s Luna Rossa is the latest America’s Cup competitor to accuse defending champion Oracle Team USA of cheating in what potentially could be one of the biggest scandals in the regatta’s 162-year history.
“For sure,” Sirena said when asked Thursday at a news conference in San Francisco if he thought the defenders are cheaters.
Oracle Team USA last week acknowledged its boats were modified without permission of the Measurement Committee for four America’s Cup World Series regattas last year, which were warm-ups to the 34th America’s Cup.
Oracle’s admission prompted Grant Dalton, the managing director of Emirates Team New Zealand, to tell the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday that he thought the American syndicate had cheated.
Oracle Team USA is owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corp.
An international jury is investigating and can sanction Oracle Team USA, including a fine, reduction in the number of sails it can use, forfeiture of races or disqualification from the America’s Cup.
It’s unclear whether the jury would take the drastic step of disqualifying Oracle Team USA. The forfeiture of any races in the best-of-17 America’s Cup match, especially if its opponent is powerhouse Emirates Team New Zealand, would certainly hurt Oracle in its quest to defend the oldest trophy in international sports.
Asked if the defenders are cheaters, Sirena said: “For sure. I mean it’s pretty obvious what they’ve done, which is pretty bad for our sport. I think it was really — I don’t know if it’s the right word — unrespectful for all of us, for all of the competitors. But maybe that is that way to work. So you have to ask them if they feel happy how they manage all the 45 event.”
The illegal modifications were made to Oracle’s 45-foot catamarans, which were prototypes for the high-performance, 72-foot catamarans being sailed this summer on San Francisco Bay.
On Tuesday, Dalton told the Chronicle: “You can’t actually get to any other point than the fact they were cheating. I think it’s really serious.”
Russell Coutts, the CEO of Oracle Team USA, fired back later Thursday, telling The Associated Press he thinks it’s “wrong that some people seem to be using this as a megaphone to slander other teams.”
“I don’t think it’s right that if a few people break a rule on a team of 130 people, that the whole team gets branded as cheats,” Coutts said in his first public comments in the week since Oracle announced that it was forfeiting its overall championships from the first two seasons of the ACWS after the violations were discovered. “I don’t think it’s right that other teams should use this as an orchestrated PR campaign to slander another team when there’s a jury process going on and the facts haven’t been established.”
Coutts used the latest performance enhancement drug scandal in Major League Baseball as an analogy, saying that if certain players were suspended, “does that mean the whole team are cheaters? I don’t think that’s right to draw that conclusion.”
Coutts said about 15 syndicate employees have been interviewed by the jury members, including himself and skipper Jimmy Spithill. Coutts said Ellison was not interviewed.
Asked if it would make the Italians more motivated to beat Oracle Team USA if they made it to the America’s Cup match, Sirena said: “Yes. It will be great to beat them and to take the Cup back to the real world.”
Luna Rossa faces Emirates Team New Zealand in the best-of-13 Louis Vuitton Cup final starting Saturday. The winner advances to face Oracle Team USA in the 34th America’s Cup starting Sept. 7.
Coutts, a New Zealander who is a four-time America’s Cup winner, said Oracle will be equally motivated, if not more so.
“You can’t imagine how motivated these guys are to win now that these people are using this as a megaphone,” Coutts said. “I don’t have to give a motivational speech. This team is incredibly motivated to win. This has picked it up 10, 20, 30 notches. They can thank Grant Dalton.”
Luna Rossa is a decided underdog to the Kiwis, who were 5-0 against the Italians in the round-robins, including a race Luna Rossa boycotted over a rules spat.
Sirena was with Oracle in 2010, in charge of the radical wing sail that helped propel the San Francisco-based syndicate to a two-race sweep of Alinghi of Switzerland off Valencia, Spain.
The Jury is investigating Oracle Team USA under Rule 69 of the Racing Rules of Sailing, America’s Cup Edition, and Protocol Article 60. Rule 69 deals with gross misconduct capable of bringing the sport into disrepute. Protocol article 60 is aimed at protecting the reputation of the America’s Cup by prohibiting conduct that is prejudicial and detrimental to the regatta and the sport of sailing.
The jury could act against individual employees or against the syndicate itself.
Coutts admitted last week that someone with the syndicate illegally placed weights in the bows of three 45-foot catamarans without the knowledge of the skippers or management. One of the boats was loaned to Olympic star Ben Ainslie, who is sailing with Oracle Team USA this summer in hopes of launching a British challenge for the 35th America’s Cup.
Coutts said then that it was “a ridiculous mistake” because the weights “didn’t affect the performance.” Oracle forfeited its results from the four ACWS regattas in question, and its two overall season championships.
In December 2011, the International Sailing Federation found Ainslie guilty of gross misconduct at the Finn class world championships after he grappled with a cameraman on a media boat. He was disqualified from two races, costing him a chance to medal. The governing body decided against further punishment, which could have included barring him from sailing in the London Olympics. Ainslie went on to win his fourth straight gold medal and fifth Olympic medal overall, making him the most successful sailor in games history.
During the 2002-03 America’s Cup challenger series in Auckland, New Zealand, Seattle’s OneWorld Challenge avoided disqualification but was penalized a point after a designer for the syndicate admitted having a computer and computer disk containing secret design information belonging to Team New Zealand.
Regardless of how the jury rules, any sanction against a team of Oracle’s stature would be another stain on an already troubled regatta, which was marred by the death of Artemis Racing crewman Andrew “Bart” Simpson in a capsize during a training run on San Francisco Bay on May 9.