He may be more accustomed to masterminding motorsport success, but ex-Formula One team boss and sailing convert Martin Whitmarsh is now focused on creating history and ending the interminable wait for British glory in the America’s Cup.
Former McLaren chief executive and principal Whitmarsh walked away from the racetrack last year after 25 years at the team, a period in which eight world championships were won and the company’s turnover rocketed from £19m to £600m.
The 57-year-old re-emerged as the chief executive of Ben Ainslie Racing in March, joining forces with the four-time Olympic gold medallist with the express intention of retrieving the oldest trophy in global sport and parading it on British shores.
Despite originating in waters surrounding the Isle of Wight, the ancient competition has never been won by a British boat, a balance which Whitmarsh is passionate to redress during the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017.
“The first measure of success is frankly bringing the cup home after 164 years, so winning the America’s Cup is the primary focus,” Whitmarsh told City A.M.
“The fact is we’ve got the opportunity to go out there and have an incredible attempt at making history. This is the oldest sporting trophy in the world. It was invented here, made here, but never won by here.
“Most of the time the Americans have had it on their mantlepiece so I think it really is time to wrestle that piece of silverware back to this island.
“Winning is something we are striving to do. It’s a big challenge but one that we can credibly believe is achievable. We’re on a road map and we’re confident that road map will lead to success in the America’s Cup.”
Whitmarsh – not the sole Formula One grandee to take the plunge into sailing, with innovative Red Bull engineer Adrian Newey now a colleague on a consultancy basis – says he had previously been impressed with Ainslie’s “humility and intelligence”.
“He made contact a few months ago and asked me if I would like to join him. Any caution lasted about two hours, and I said I’d do it. That was that. It was pretty quick,” he added.
“There is the spark of something entirely new. I didn’t want to be characterised by F1 alone and I wanted something different but which still had the competition, the challenge, the technology and teamwork.
“This country has proven in motorsport that we are excellent as innovators and being fast, responsive and reactive. We have dominated motorsport in many categories for many years and it’s time we did the same in sailing. There are so many parallels.”
The process begins next month when the America’s Cup World Series, the tournament’s first stage, is held off Portsmouth, with points available that will determine the starting score of teams in the competition's qualifiers.
Up to half a million people are expected to converge on the south coast for the showpiece event on 23-26 July and, while acknowledging sailing has some way to go before reaching the commercial levels of Formula One, Whitmarsh believes a tipping point is approaching.
“Clearly Formula One has been a well developed sport over the last few decades. That’s created a global following and huge audience. With that has come huge revenues and therefore the money for the technology race that is Formula One,” he said.
“I think the contrast is that the America’s Cup had a transformatory moment in 2013 [Oracle Team USA’s comeback in San Francisco], which was when it became an exciting televisual sport with these flying, multihull vessels travelling at tremendous speed.
“I think that has opened the door to the potential of a new era of commercialisation of this sport. It hasn’t happened yet but I think that process will start in Portsmouth. It will be the first time in more than 150 years that a British entrant will be racing in British waters towards the America’s Cup. People will be reminded what a captivating sport sailing can be.”
Despite a long history of success in Formula One, Whitmarsh’s rhetoric suggests a long-term association with sailing beckons, although he has refused to rule out a return to his past life.
“I’m not thinking about it but you never say never. I had some opportunities to go back to Formula One but I didn’t want to do those at the time,” he added. “I said to Ben that I will come and help and let’s see if we can win this America’s Cup. You never say never but that’s what I am focused on and what I want to achieve.”