Land Rover lends expertise to America’s Cup team

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Think of a giant Formula One car flying across the water and you get a sense of the excitement of the America’s Cup sailing competition.

The high-tech worlds of automotive engineering and America’s Cup racing came together in Bermuda, where a long tussle for the most prestigious prize in sailing recently concluded.

For U.K. luxury SUV maker Land Rover, the Bermuda event was bittersweet. After backing Britain’s Sir Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) sailing team with financial and engineering resources for two years, Land Rover saw BAR battle bravely, but succumb in qualifying to Team New Zealand, which went on to beat America’s Team Oracle to win the cup.

For fans of car and yacht racing, the parallels between the two sports at their highest levels are fascinating. Formula One cars, for instance, make extensive use of ultra-lightweight materials such as carbon fiber. Aerodynamic efficiency plays a key role in their success. The same is true of the latest America’s Cup boats, which are carbon-fiber catamarans. They are powered not by conventional sails, but by Boeing 737-size wings that can propel the craft at up to 60 mph, or as much as four times the wind speed.

A six-man crew steer these tricky 50-foot-long monsters and physically generate the energy needed to manage the wing and deploy the hydrofoils that lift the boats out of the water.

At speed the boats are essentially flying, as the whole weight of the craft is supported by a submerged, surfboard-size foil. Consequently, aerodynamics and the boat’s hydraulic control systems are critical, and that’s where Land Rover’s technical expertise plays its part.

In Bermuda, Jim Johnson, the automaker’s innovation acceleration manager, described the relationship with BAR as much more than a sponsorship. “It’s a partnership,” said Johnson. “For example, we are heavily involved in the design and engineering of the wing, analyzing the masses of data from sensors as the wing changes shape at speed.”

Johnson said lessons from the advanced aerodynamic work on the boat will also play a role in Land Rover’s development of wind-cheating, fuel-efficient designs for its future vehicles.

Martin Whitmarsh, CEO of the Land Rover BAR, noted that as a rookie team, the British effort was up against much more experienced rivals, but having Land Rover on board was a “huge advantage.” Whitmarsh, previously CEO of one of Formula One racing’s most successful teams, McLaren Racing, added: “Land Rover’s input to the final boat design has been hugely significant for us. As the relationship grew, so did their level of involvement.

“The America’s Cup has always been a sailing and design race, and the boats have developed from ropes and winches to more technical machines which will fly out of the water at up to 60 mph. This complex design requires the latest engineering skill and insight, allowing automotive brands to make a significant impact in the design race — very much like in F1.”

The BAR team was put together by Ainslie, a highly respected Olympic sailing medal-holder, to win the America’s Cup, the world’s oldest sporting trophy. The contest was started in Britain in 1851 but has never been won by a British team. Despite the setback in Bermuda, Land Rover says it is renewing its partnership with BAR in the hopes of bringing the cup back to the U.K. when the next contest occurs in four years time.

“While our campaign in this year’s America’s Cup has come to an end,” said Ainslie, “we are more determined than ever to bring the cup home. Knowing we will have the support of a partner like Land Rover means a lot to the team. Their engineering knowledge and expertise has been invaluable in the design process and I’m excited about what we can achieve together in the future.”

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at