Ben Ainslie (GBR) returned to winning ways on the fourth day for Finns, but Hogh-Christensen still leads.
At the London 2012 Olympic Sailing Competition in Weymouth, Ainslie with a first and a third to narrow the gap on regatta leader Jonas Høgh-Christensen (DEN) to just three points. Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic (CRO) moved up to third. The second race of the day was won by Rafa Trujillo (ESP).
It was a big day out on Weymouth Bay South course with big winds, big waves and bigger stakes. For Ainslie it was crucial that he started to narrow the points gap and he did just that. Thursday was the day that he had to make his move on Høgh-Christensen before it was too late. The Brit was fast running out of races to reverse the points score and he came out looking more confident and dominant that at any time this week.
He owned the start of race seven, locking into the dangerous pin end position early and controlling it with perfection until the gun. The Dane was just to windward and just a bit back from the line, but his problem was the Polish boat that was ahead and on his wind. Piotr Kula (POL) was OCS, but he damaged Høgh-Christensen's start enough so that he had to tack to get clear air.
Ainslie controlled the left along with Rafa Trujillo (ESP) and Pieter-Jan Postma (NED) and they rounded the first mark in this order with Vasilij Zbogar (SLO) in fourth and then Høgh-Christensen.
With big wind and big waves the reach to the wing was a spray-filled sleigh ride. The Dane slid into fourth and then, after rounding the mark, dived low to get some separation from the leading bunch. Then disaster struck as he capsized on a big wave. He was up and sailing again in 30 seconds but looked clearly rattled as he rejoined the race in fifteenth.
At the front Ainslie and Postma were battling for supremacy downwind in the big conditions, rounding opposite gates. Postma briefly got in front of Ainslie at the next top mark but Ainslie soon passed him downwind to extend and win his first race of the week by some 20 seconds from Postma. Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic (CRO) crossed in third with Tapio Nirkko (FIN) in fourth. Third overall Jonathan Lobert (FRA) was fifth.
Høgh-Christensen was back up to sixth at the top mark but dropped two on the downwind to cross in eighth. Early performer Trujillo had gear problems downwind and dropped to fifteenth at the finish.
The British breathed a collective sign of relief. Ainslie had turned the corner and put a bullet on the scoreboard. More importantly for Ainslie, Høgh-Christensen now had to count his seventh from Monday so the points gap was down to just four.
Onto race eight and Høgh-Christensen was back on the offensive, winning the favoured pin end of the line, though he had Trujillo just to windward off him. Ainslie started slightly further up the line but was soon forced to tack off to find a lane. The fleet again favoured the left side with Ainslie heading furthest left when the leaders crossed back.
Round the top mark Trujillo led from Høgh-Christensen, Postma, Nirkko and Ainslie. The Brit went low on the reach and moved up to fourth and then also overtook Postma on the run. At the gate the top four boats rounded the same mark within 10 seconds of each other with a nice gap on the fleet.
Soon after the rounding Ainslie did a penalty turn and lost ground. Høgh-Christensen took a hitch to the right and tacked on Ainslie's wind. Again the fleet went all the way to the port layline. Trujillo held onto his lead to round ahead with Høgh-Christensen and Postma holding a small lead over Ainslie.
The final downwind to the finish was a thrilling battle. Høgh-Christensen immediately made inroads into Trujillo's lead while Ainslie tried to find a route past Postma so he could attack the Dane. But it was Postma who made the first move going wide and then crossing on front of Høgh-Christensen and Ainslie.
Round the last mark it was Trujillo and Postma with Ainslie just sliding round the mark ahead of Høgh-Christensen. Nothing else changed by the finish with the 2004 Silver medalist Trujillo winning the race from Postma. Ainslie had taken around 70 metres about off regatta leader Høgh-Christensen on the run to inflict his second victory over him in one day and further close the points gap.
After a third and seventh on Thursday Kljakovic Gaspic has moved up to the bronze medal position: “It was hard day, windy but a simple race, keeping left was important. For me wasn't easy but I pulled hard for such a result, and in the end I am happy. Tomorrow it will be all about keeping the game simple, sailing fast and pushing hard.”
Lobert, now down one place in fourth, said: “It was a rough day. There was a lot of tension this morning. I was quite nervous. I was trying to manage it and in the first race I succeeded a little bit because I had some good downwinds and managed to finish fifth. In the second I had a terrible start and then it was just too hard to come back. So not so good a day for me. The wind was really up and down today, but the left side was still generally favoured. There is still everything to do. With two more races a lot can happen so we'll keep on pushing and we'll see tomorrow and I hope to be a bit more relaxed.”
Postma had his best day yet with two second places. “The wind was quite up and down. Sometimes 10-12 knots sometimes up to 18 knots. Especially on the downwinds you had to really look. Sometimes some people would catch a gust and 50 metres ahead the boats wouldn't have it. It was really tricky.”
“In the first race I had a good start, sailed to the left side and it was a steady race. I had a fight with Ben. I passed him on the second upwind and he passed me on the last run on a gust. In the second race I had a bad start but on the upwind I caught a nice gust when I was more to the left and I caught up a lot. Then I caught up to second on the reach and had a good downwind.
“The last downwind was good. In the last part I didn't make the right plan to pass Rafa. At first I went down and then I went up but missed one wave. But I passed Jonas very nicely.
“Tomorrow I want to do better than today. I haven't showed everything I have yet. I have the feeling so I really want to push tomorrow." Nervous? “I don't feel nervous now, but tomorrow I might feel a bit nervous and I think that's fine.”
Dan Slater is still in with a chance at a medal, sitting in eighth place: “It was not a very good day for me today. I had an all right first one but not a very good second one. It was just frustrating. We are sailing in three knots of current and a washing machine of waves so it's tough. It's a one way track. But I'm still alive.”
“They've done a fantastic job here. The facilities on shore and everything is just great. And the starts and race management have been fantastic. It's just a shame we are sailing so far away, several miles out on a one way track. Whatever order you start off from the pin is pretty well the order we have rounded the top mark in. PJ had a great day today and I just need a day like that tomorrow to get myself back into contention. I can definitely do it. My pace is pretty good. If it's a one way track you just have to fight for the pin and you actually have take a few risks in my position.”
A fourth and a fifth leaves Nirkko in seventh place just 14 points off the medals: “In the first race I didn't get a very good start so I had to tack away behind the whole fleet, so I was on the wrong side and struggled on the first upwind. After that I eased the clutch and just let it go. The reach and the first downwind were good. Nothing much happened on the second upwind but the second downwind was excellent. I think I got better pressure and was a bit more on the inside inside.” Nirkko went from eleventh to fourth on the run, after rounding the top mark in twenty-first.
“In the second race I started second boat from the pin. Jonas has trouble getting past the pin and I got slowed by it and then Rafa came rolling over both of us. But then I just eased the traveller and footed under them and banged the left corner and came back with good speed and rounded fifth and managed to keep that.”
“Tomorrow it's quite tight. I will try to close the gap to third. It looks like Jonas and Ben are gone but I believe there are still a couple of guys that could have a difficult day tomorrow, but I need to sail a good day. After tomorrow I want to be within reach of the bronze medal and I think it's possible.”
Høgh-Christensen's lead has dropped from 10 points to just three points but he remained optimistic. “I got a good start but unfortunately the Polish guy started on top of me and he was over the line and that ruined my start. I wanted to go left and I had a good lane but I had to tack off because of the Polish and that ruined the first beat for me. I got up to fifth at the top mark and caught up with the front guys on the reach and then, in one moment of not being on top of the boat, I flipped to windward. It was one of the expensive ones. Then there was a lot of catching up. I really pushed hard and caught up a lot so happy to get back to eighth.
“In the second race I did what I wanted and got the start I wanted at the right end and had a good lane. I didn't sail a good second run and lost PJ and Ben, which wasn't very good. It was down to speed and lack of pressure. Ben sat on me quite a lot so there were times when I didn't have much pressure. Then I had two bad waves.
“Tomorrow I need to get two good races in, and do what we've done for the past four days. I think I’ve sailed well and done what I've wanted to do. I was a bit unlucky today.”
Was it nerves today? “I don't think I was more nervous this morning that any other day. But you're always a bit nervous at the Olympics. We have a very detailed plan from when we wake up to when we go to bed and we've been following that plan and it seems to work and it takes a lot of the pressure off.”
There is one more day of the opening series left before Sunday's double points non-discardable medal race. Thursday was proof, if we needed it, that it will be a fight all the way to the finish.
Ainslie was more aggressive, appeared to be faster upwind, made fewer mistakes and was blisteringly fast downwind. He seems to have overcome the lacklustre performance of the first three days and refocussed on the job in hand. Høgh-Christensen, by contrast, made several mistakes and the capsize in race seven may hang over him in the days that remain. Two more opening series races remain and Thursday's change in fortunes has set up a thrilling match between these two amazing sailors. We can't wait.
Races nine and ten are scheduled for 1200 on Friday, 3 August on Weymouth Bay South course.
- www.finnclass.org International Finn Association