What lessons can sailing learn from Formula 1?

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Caterham F1 launch sailing team

A chance meeting at the Monaco Grand Prix between one of sailing's biggest stars and one of the leading names in Formula 1 has resulted in a plan aimed at revolutionising off-shore racing.

Record-breaking round-the-world yachtsman Brian Thompson found himself moored next to Caterham technical chief Mike Gascoyne, who has designed race-winning cars for Jordan and Renault.

They got chatting. Thompson revealed his love of F1 and Gascoyne, then running the technical side of Caterham's F1 team before his recent move upstairs, his life-long passion for sailing.

Gascoyne took Thompson on a tour of the pits. They hit it off, and so started the relationship that has led to the launch of the Caterham Challenge team, an attempt to bring F1 technology, know-how and practices to sailing.

On the face of it, the two sports seem about as different as it is possible to be.

One is a high-speed circus taking place in front of tens of thousands of spectators and a TV audience of hundreds of millions.

The other is low speed and attracts nothing like the same attention, with races fought out on the open ocean, watched only by sea birds, whales and the occasional webcam.

In fact, though, they have more in common than might at first glance be obvious, and Gascoyne and Thompson are setting out to prove it.

Gascoyne is putting his mouth where his company's money is. The first project for the Caterham Challenge team is to race in the Transat Jacques Vabre from France to Brazil in November. Thompson and Gascoyne will be co-skippers.

Beyond that there will be more races, including the Global Ocean Race in 2014. But that is just the beginning. Gascoyne has grand plans to make a major impact on sailing, a sport he likens to F1 20 years ago.

As well "growing the fan-base", Thompson says the idea "is to take something from the F1 model and add even more in the technology - it has worked in sailing before."

In the 21st century, thanks to the advance of technology, a mechanical failure is a rarity in F1. But 20 years ago only about half the cars made it to the chequered flag. The difference has been due to a rigorous application of engineering practices.

Components are categorised, 'lifed' and tested to the point that teams know exactly how long each of the thousands of parts on an F1 car will last, and what condition they are in at all times. If one does not make it to its predicted life, the rigorous way its journey has been traced from manufacture to racing car enables them to highlight where the failures were.

Sailing is like F1 already in one sense, in that it's a high-tech sport - advanced materials such as carbon-fibre are used in manufacturing the boats, and fluid dynamics in designing them.

Mike Gascoyne (right) and Brian Thompson
Caterham technical chief Mike Gascoyne (right), has designed race-winning cars for Jordan and Renault

But testing and 'lifing' parts to guarantee longevity while not compromising performance does not happen to anything like the same extent in sailing.

Gascoyne wants to change all that. Next in his sights is a much more extensive use of design technologies such as computational fluid dynamics, increasingly de rigueur in F1.

He says he had a friendly argument about this with another top sailor he knows, Alex Thomson, who earlier this year became only the third Briton to record a podium finish in the notoriously tough Vendee Globe round-the-world race.

"I was talking to Alex about working for him as a consultant," says Gascoyne, "and he said: 'I can't pay you 100 grand a year because I don't pay anyone that, and that's a complete set of sails and a new rudder.'

"I'm going, 'Look, mate, you've only finished one out of three Vendee Globes.'

"One boat sank in the southern ocean because the keel came loose and after one day of the next one he hit a big wave, cracked the bottom of the boat and had to retire.

"This year he got around because we were doing some of this stuff and I'm glad we were able to help and support him in that.

"He's saying he doesn't want to spend that money; I'm saying, 'Alex, if you only finish one out of three races, how attractive are you to sponsors?' He's lucky, he's got Hugo Boss, but guys like Brian, if they have that kind of failure rate, the sponsor is going to say no."

Thompson has bought into this for obvious reasons. "He wasn't in the last Vendee Globe because he couldn't raise any money to do it," Gascoyne says.

"But when you've got 50% reliability and a load of boats going out on the first night of a three-month race, of course you're going to struggle to raise sponsorship."

There is also the issue that failures on the open ocean are expensive and potentially life-threatening.

The Caterham sailing Challenge team
The Caterham Challenge team hope to race in the Transat Jacques Vabre from France to Brazil in November

"There was a boat, Rambler, that lost its keel in the Fastnet race (off the south coast of the UK and Ireland) last time," Gascoyne says.

"Twenty-one people on board, £30-40m worth. The owner goes in with his girlfriend. Two of the guys jumped off and went with them because they floated off. They were 10 minutes away from not getting out. So it's not, can you afford to do it? It's can you afford not to do it?"

Mention of money brings up another area in which Caterham want to supply F1 expertise to sailing - raising sponsorship.

"There are skippers going out and trying to put projects together," Thompson says. "You are one person and you don't have a huge company behind you that you would in a motor racing environment."

Gascoyne adds: "From the marketing point of view, the F1 angle gives us a huge edge over anyone in sailing. And we can offer cross-branding - come and brand the sailing team and a one-race sponsorship at Barcelona, say, with the boat there and the F1.

"So you get the F1 experience for not much money but you can sponsor the boat (as well). And of course no-one else in the sailing world can offer that."

They are convinced the idea has guaranteed appeal. "Actually most people who like sailing like F1," Thompson says, "because they are two technology-driven sports and they're quite individual - team sports but not in the same way as rugby, football and cricket. There's intrigue and there's some glamour."

They are thinking big, Gascoyne and Thompson - and laterally as well. Not content with setting up a new sailing team and trying to revolutionise the way a sport conducts itself, both in the sporting and commercial fields, they also see potential in setting up new sailing projects for other people.

Caterham F1 design office
Caterham F1 design office

"Part of it," Gascoyne says, "is when you want to do a sailing project, come and ask MGI (his company, which builds and operates the boats) and we'll run it for you."

Taking it even further than that, they have looked at the increasing commercialisation of mountaineering and believe they can take sailing in the same way.

So where now people with minimal mountaineering experience but a taste for adventure can pay $60,000 (£39,000) to be taken up Mount Everest, Gascoyne wants to do the same for sailing.

"Look at all the blokes who go out and get towed up Everest by these guides now," Gascoyne says. "Well, if you can do that, how many people want to go out and do a race sailing two-handed with people like Brian Thompson and do a professional race as an amateur but don't know how to do it because they're not experienced enough?

"And what I want to do is say: 'If you want to do that you come and see MGI and we'll get you the boat, we get you the sailor to do the training for you and off you go - go and live the experience'."

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