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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

These Formula One drivers are still racing fast, just on water

From right, Jimmy Spithill from SailGP and Max Verstappen from Formula 1 on the U.S. team boat during one of the three exhibition races against the Australian team boat in September.

By John Clarke

On a recent sunny September day in Saint-Tropez, where the French SailGP race was taking place, Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez climbed aboard a speedy high-tech $4 million sailboat.

The drivers for the Red Bull Formula One team had little idea what to expect when they took turns settling into the cockpit of the United States SailGP F50 foiling catamaran, one of the nine team boats that race in the global sailing series, now in its third year. Neither man had ever sailed.

With veteran Australian skipper Jimmy Spithill guiding them, the drivers took turns on the American boat for three exhibition races as they squared off against the Australian boat led by Tom Slingsby. Verstappen, the reigning Formula One champion who is on the brink of winning the title again, took the wheel on his turn, while Pérez declined, not feeling comfortable enough at the helm, said Laura Muma, a spokesperson.

Verstappen, in a video, appeared uneasy at first as he clutched the sides of the cockpit when foiling and made clumsy, toddlerlike steps across the netting span between the two hulls as the boat turned.

The adjustment to racing on the water and specifically foiling, when the boat lifts out of the water and rides on its hydrofoils, is understandable, Spithill said.

“We’ve had all sorts of athletes on the boat,” he said. “They are all shocked by how weird of a sensation it is when they swap sides when you’re sailing, especially when you’re foiling. Until you get on the water and experience it, there’s nothing you can say to them. But he [Verstappen] did well.”

Verstappen said he most enjoyed the balletic manner of the crew.

“It’s very different,” Verstappen said. “You can’t compare the speed. But when you reach the speeds on the water it feels really impressive. I like to see the guys working together to go as fast as possible and tuning it to perfection.”

Hitting high speeds on the water, where these boats can reach 55 knots, about 65 mph, feels different than doing the same on the track, Pérez said, on which the race cars go more than 200 mph.

“I never imagined it was this challenging,” Pérez said. “Watching them on TV, it doesn’t look like it’s such an extreme sport. It was something unique. We are doing some racing, but not on the track — on the water. Like every sport, when you see it from the outside, it is so different than when you actually jump into it. It is so impressive. I have a lot of admiration for what these guys do.”

Pérez also noticed how the crew kept calm as they communicated.

“These guys are pretty chilled out,” he said. “The atmosphere they have is really nice. It’s something that Formula One misses sometimes. Formula One is too focused, and people are too much on their own. Here, everyone is really relaxed and gets on well.”

Slingsby said both sports were similar in that they were extreme.

“I like to think our sport is an extreme sport — maybe not as extreme as their sport,” he said, adding that it might have proven more extreme if they had had better wind on race day.

The Americans beat the Australians, in light winds. “It was like we were sort of stuck in first gear today. But Max and Checo got a win. Not bad,” Spithill said, referring to Pérez by his nickname.

“It was enough for us,” Pérez said.

The U.S. SailGP team also races under the Red Bull banner. Verstappen and Pérez were attending during a break in preparation for the Italian Grand Prix. The drivers were seeing how the sailors race, communicate and apply the massive amount of data generated by their analytic systems that help optimize performance.

They also wanted to test the validity of SailGP’s claim of being Formula One on the water. Russell Coutts, the CEO of SailGP, said the drivers recognized parallels between the two sports.

“These guys have great experience, and they have the best drivers in the world,” Pérez said. “In that way, they are like Formula One.”

Spithill said the two sports were now more alike.

“In the past, we couldn’t really say that we were comparable,” he said. “But now we are, with the F50, and the speeds we’re doing on the water, and when you look at the tech and data.”

SailGP and Oracle Red Bull Racing, Verstappen and Pérez’s team, rely on the same analytic system to provide data to help improve race strategies and allow the teams to make split-second decisions in real time. Each F50 sailboat has 800 sensors that transmit 3,000 pieces of data per second to the control room, Coutts said.

“There’s a lot of information, and that’s partly why response time is really critical,” Coutts said. “If you slightly blow it with your response time, then you’ll lose. It’s pretty critical that the teams get good at analyzing their data quickly — it’s what the coaches are focusing on now a lot.”

Unlike Formula One, SailGP shares its data with other teams to make the racing more competitive and the margins of winning closer, he said. Formula One teams are famously secretive with their information. “Max and Checo were really intrigued about that,” Coutts said.

“You can always learn from other sports,” Verstappen said. “Communication is a big part of their sport and our sport. You can learn a lot about the way you are talking to people.”

Asked how racing a Formula One car and communicating to the pit crew were different from racing a sailboat and communicating to the crew and support team, Verstappen laughed.

“If I had to deal with that, I would have thrown someone in the water,” he said. “It’s just very different. For us, there is only one person in the car. That’s what we work with. I find it interesting how everyone communicates and has their own roles, and try to extract the most out of it.”

For an even swap, the teams have discussed the possibility of Spithill driving a Formula One race car in October at the United States Grand Prix in Texas.

Coutts chuckled at the thought.

“I’m sure Jimmy would like that to happen,” Coutts said “I think it’s more likely he’d just do that on the simulator. You wouldn’t want to send an F50 athlete into a Formula One car all by themselves. I’m pretty sure of that.”

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