Franck Cammas on French America's Cup hopes
Based on the reputed budgets of the six international syndicates vying to win the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda next summer, Groupama Team France is very much the archetypal small fish in a big pond.
Minnows swimming with great white sharks they may, be but Franck Cammas’ men have no plans to be easy bait for the bigger-budget teams like Cup-holders, Oracle Team USA or fellow-challengers, Emirates Team New Zealand, Ben Ainslie Racing, SoftBank Team Japan and Artemis Racing.
When money is too tight to mention you have to get smart about how you spend it.
While other teams are on their third or even fourth development boat, last summer the French team launched their first and only test boat - a 45-footer that will this year morph itself to become the America’s Cup Class 50-footer that the French crew will race in the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series in Bermuda.
“Our first boat – we call it the Turbo - is almost 90 per cent of the final boat for the America's Cup,” Cammas told Sail Racing Magazine. “Only the hulls won’t be used in the Cup boat – the wing, the foils, the rudders, the beams and the central pod will all be transferred over.”
According to Cammas there was a lot to learn about the new surrogate boat, which was a huge step up in performance compared with the foiling AC45s they raced in the America’s Cup World Series.
“These boats are small but they are as fast as the 72s last time in San Francisco,” he said.
“There have been many, many new systems to learn about on this boat – both hydraulic and electronic. We are six on board and we can fly all the time - even upwind. 25 knots is the upwind target speed!”
While the French Turbo was being designed and built in France Cammas’ squad racked up valuable competitive foiling hours during 2016 on the 10-boat European GC32 Racing Tour as the NORAUTO team. The French GC32 also made a guest appearance at the Lisbon Extreme Sailing Series.
“Outside of the AC World Series events there’s no opportunity to train in the AC45s,” Cammas explains. “We needed to sail a lot to improve our skills in flying boats and the GC32 was the closest boat that compares with the AC45.”
“It's good because we are 10 people in the sailing team so we were able to change the crew around and make sure everyone gets plenty of sailing time.
“We got lots of racing in during the GC32 regattas. At the first event in Riva on Lake Garda we did about 20 races – that’s way more than at an AC45 event and has really helped us improve the level of the squad.”
Cammas is under no illusions about the French syndicates status as the America’s Cup underdog and accepts that they are very much in catch up mode compared to the other teams who all started their campaigns much earlier.
But don’t write the French off just yet. Cammas certainly has not.
“I'm very confident in our squad because all the individuals involved are very good. But we have to learn to work together to catch up with the other teams,” he explained.
“We have a very good designer, very good engineers and some sailors who took part in the last race, but it’s the first time as a group - as a team - we have worked together. For sure, if the America's started tomorrow we wouldn’t have any chance.
“Although we are not at an advantage it's also very exciting because now the design rules mean the box is very small and I think the boats will be very close in terms of performance.
“The difference will be in the handling, the use of the boats’ systems and the reliability of those systems. To put it another way, it’s all about the interface – the exchange - between the men and the machines.
“We are working very hard on developing in this area between now and next summer.”
Might there perhaps be some surprises in the design and systems of the French boat next year, we wondered?
At this stage Cammas says it’s hard to be sure.
“The biggest development will be on the systems and on the shape of the foils. We have a good guy for that because he previously worked with Luna Rossa for two years and they developed a lot of tools and software to help them be very quick in terms of design and development.
“But we have to sail a lot to see what is the real stability of the boat. With software you can calculate the drag factor very easily but the stability is impossible to calculate. On paper our foil designs are fast, but we are doing lots of sailing to discover what the crew can do with these kinds of foils out on the water.”
Cost restrictions mean the French syndicate do their training in isolation from their base in Lorient, France. Meanwhile Cammas has a spy stationed in Bermuda to keep an eye on what the American, British, New Zealand and Japanese teams are getting up to.
He says there has been nothing ground breaking so far but the French skipper is particularly interested in the crop of foils some of the teams have been trialling to cope with the range of wind strengths they could have to deal with in Bermuda next year.
“Right now there is no big surprise. There are many different shapes including some clearly designed for very light winds. It could be we have to fly between six knots and 25 knots of wind and it won’t be the same foils we use for the five to 10 and 10 to 25 knot ranges. Getting those foil designs right could be critical.”
Last to launch their campaign and with the smallest budget, Groupama Team France, are far from favourites make it as far as the 35th America’s Cup final match. That said, only a fool would dismiss the potential of a team run by a serial over-achiever like Cammas.
Many were sceptical of his chances against the experienced teams at the start of the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race, but after a slow start in the end the French team won at an easy canter.
Cammas is not the sort to take on a project simply to make up the numbers, but he nevertheless concedes his aspirations lie beyond his team’s first America’s Cup campaign.
“A team working closely together for two years understanding challenges and finding solutions to problems is a rich experience. It would be a huge waste to throw that all away afterwards.
“First and foremost we see this as an investment for the future. Whatever the result our goal is to keep the team together after this America's Cup and immediately start work on the 36th edition.
Cammas sees only upside in his Groupama Team France squad being perceived as the outside bet for the 35th America’s Cup
“We have a good experienced team who have worked together a lot on previous projects – and that’s a real strength,” says Cammas. “For sure it won’t be easy; we started with half the budget of the next biggest team. But we don't think too much about that. We just focus on using our energy and our budget to do our best job. After that we will see what happens.
“Actually, there is very little pressure on us because if we do well it will be a surprise more than if we don’t,” Cammas sums up with a mischievous smile.
“The big surprise about us could be that we are a big surprise! Everyone will just have to wait and see.”