They've made me angry – you don’t want to do that,” Sir Ben Ainslie famously fumed when two gold-medal rivals raised his heckles by accusing the most decorated sailor in Olympic history of foul play during the London 2012 Games.
The blue-touch paper was lit and a trademark Ainslie revival duly saw the Briton claim the fourth Olympic title of a glittering career. A year later, he was instrumental in another stunning comeback, Team Oracle USA’s logic-defying America’s Cup victory.
Ainslie, it is fair to say, is ferociously competitive and seemingly at his most potent when the enormity of the challenge appears insurmountable. Lengthening odds tend to mean little to one of the greatest sportspeople this country has produced.
His latest undertaking is to win the 35th edition of the America’s Cup in Bermuda next year with Land Rover BAR - Ben Ainslie Racing - the eponymous team launched in June 2014 which has evolved from scratch. No British team has ever won the competition, while only once in its 165-year history has a side succeeded at its first attempt.
Given his pedigree, few would be likely to bet against Ainslie, although the sheer scale of such a feat is contextualised when the 39-year-old admits victory would supplant even the ecstasy of topping the podium in London four years ago.
Asked if bringing the America’s Cup back to British waters would outrank his Olympic legacy, Ainslie told City A.M.: “Not the whole Olympic career, all 20 years put together, probably not, but as a single individual experience, then yes.
“This America’s Cup is an all-encompassing challenge across the board – sailing, design, management – it’s a massive, massive project. If we are ultimately successful, ranking all British sporting achievements, it would be right up there because of the difficulty of actually winning the cup.
“History shows how hard that challenge is of building the team, building the design tools, the infrastructure you need and getting the team working cohesively in these timeframes. It’s incredibly hard.
“It’s been a massive learning curve for me, but an incredible opportunity to found a team and build it up from absolutely nothing. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe we could be successful.
“We’ve set our stall out to try and achieve it and that’s what we’re working towards. Right now, just over the halfway stage of the campaign, I’m confident we can achieve it.”
Ainslie has left nothing to chance. Last year, he installed ex-Formula One boss Martin Whitmarsh, whose 25 years at McLaren brought eight world championships and saw the company’s turnover rocket from £19m to £600m, as Land Rover BAR chief executive.
Former rival Giles Scott, the red-hot favourite to succeed Ainslie as Finn class Olympic champion this summer in Brazil, is also on board, while the whole operation is housed in multi-million pound state-of-the-art facilities in Portsmouth.
The set-up screams enduring America’s Cup presence, and affords Ainslie a bullish attitude.
“Of course it would be disappointing if we don’t win, that’s only natural as a competitive sportsman, but we’re in this game for the long term,” he added.
“We will win the America’s Cup at some stage. If it doesn’t happen next year, we will keep going until we get the job done. That’s why we’ve created a team. We’re a sustainable business and we’re developing our organisation to be around for many years to come.”
The stellar names involved inevitably add to the weight of expectation, but pressure is something on which Ainslie has consistently thrived.
NATURE OF THE BEAST
Team Oracle USA’s America’s Cup fightback three years ago, when Ainslie’s tactical nous steered them from 8-1 down to win 9-8, ranks as one of the greatest and most remarkable sporting comebacks of all time.
His Olympic career is also littered with retaliations, while Land Rover BAR collectively showcased their boss’s penchant for winning the hard way during February’s America’s Cup World Series win in Oman.
“Unfortunately, at most Olympics I seemed to be under pressure most of the time, which I guess is the nature of the beast, but that battle does seem to bring out the best in me,” said Ainslie.
“As a sportsman you want to have the ultimate test, you want to push yourself to the limit. Some people shirk away from that and don’t like the pressure. For others, it triggers something inside that makes them push harder and they love the challenge. I love that challenge, I love that battle and get a big drive out of it.”
Ainslie’s next couple of months will be dominated by World Series events in New York, Chicago, Portsmouth and Toulon, and, for the first time in 20 years, not the Olympics after his post-London retirement.
“It was a decision I made pretty quickly after 2012 and for me it’s interesting to hear people in different walks of life or sports talk about knowing when the time is right to move on,” said Ainslie.
“For me, it was an absolute no-brainer. To win a fourth gold medal in home waters and then to have this opportunity to start a British America’s Cup team from scratch, to mould it how I wanted to, meant it was absolutely the right time and the right decision.
“In Giles [Scott] we have the most amazing talent coming through so I don’t think I have left a gap anywhere.”
Land Rover BAR won the opening event of the World Series in Portsmouth last summer, while the spotlight will refocus on the city when the competition returns to the south coast for its latest instalment between 21 and 24 July.
More than a quarter of a million spectators are expected to attend as teams battle for points which help determine the starting scores in the America’s Cup qualifiers and, ultimately, the chance to go head-to-head with the defending champions, Ainslie’s former employers Team Oracle.
“It’s a massive buzz as competitors. To get that opportunity to race in front of a home crowd and to hear them cheering you on is amazing,” added Ainslie.
“We won the event last year, which was a massive boost for our team, as a new team to the America’s Cup, so there is a lot at stake for us.
“It’s taken a massive amount of effort from everybody involved in the team given it is a first generation team, but we’re on track and we’re where we wanted to be.
“We have a really intense period between now and the America’s Cup in just over a year’s time but if we can reach all of the targets that we set ourselves, then I think we have a very good chance.”
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