SailGP has often billed itself as being Formula One on the water, because it has the fastest boats and top skippers in the sport.
That analogy has come full circle now that retired F1 driver Sebastian Vettel is co-owner of the Germany SailGP Team, which is making its debut in Season 4 of tech baron Larry Ellison’s global league. After opening with two regattas in the United States, SailGP is on a three-regatta swing through Europe that starts with the France Sail Grand Prix in Saint-Tropez on Saturday and Sunday.
To Vettel, speed is speed, whether it’s flying down a straightaway at more than 200 mph in an F1 car or flying above waves approaching the equivalent of highway speeds in a 50-foot foiling catamaran. He’s one of only a handful of people who have experienced both.
Vettel, who won four F1 championships before retiring in 2022, took the wheel of the German team’s F-50 catamaran for some speed runs after the first day of racing in the Los Angeles regatta in late July.
“Obviously, yes I had the wheel and did some turns, but it takes a lot more than just having the wheel in your hand,” Vettel said afterward. “Very impressive, and all without an engine, you know, to have that much power and speed building up.”
Vettel said the catamaran hit about 40 mph. The top speed of an F-50 is about 60 mph when the wind is up and the cat is up on its foils, with the hulls completely out of the water to reduce drag and increase speed. The catamarans get their power from a wingsail that looks and performs like an airliner’s wing.
“On the water, it’s a very different feeling. It feels a lot higher,” Vettel said of the speed. “Plus, I was impressed with the turns, the G-force and the maneuvers you were able to do. And now we were on our own. You can only imagine when you’ve got others around you, it’s a lot more exciting.”
When all 10 boats are racing, it can be quite crazy as the world’s top skippers jockey for position at high speed and sometimes in close quarters. The ultimate goal is to achieve 100% flight time, which is sailing an entire race on foils without the hulls ever touching the water. That probably won’t happen in Saint-Tropez because the forecast is for light wind.
Sailors describe foiling as an otherworldly feeling. Vettel concurs.
“It’s funny because initially, it’s like, OK, you’re on the water, and then all of a sudden, it’s a little bit like flying because everything goes silent and then you just hear the wind picking up, the wind speed. It’s a sort of feeling you want more, more, more,” Vettel said.
Vettel was looking for a new challenge after retiring from F1. He’s not a sailor but he is interested in SailGP’s sustainability efforts and in how teams and regattas are organized. Steering the boat was a great introduction to being a hands-on owner.
“It’s definitely been very useful and enjoyable because I still have to learn so much,” Vettel said. “I’m interested in how things work, usually. So many new things. The wind is an element I know from racing, but nowhere near to the extent that you need it here. Not just to power you, but also to try to control it, try to anticipate it, even though you can’t see it.”
Like all SailGP crewmembers, Vettel was outfitted with a crash helmet, flotation vest, an emergency oxygen supply and other survival gear because the sport can be dangerous. Capsizes are common, such as Friday when the U.S. crew, skippered by two-time America’s Cup champion Jimmy Spithill, rolled over when hit by a gust of wind during a slow-speed downwind maneuver in between practice races. There were no injuries and minimal damage to the catamaran. Spithill is the defending Saint-Tropez champion.
Team Germany’s skipper is Erik Heil, who won bronze medals in consecutive Summer Olympics in the high-performance 49er skiff class.
Having Vettel as co-owner is “pretty cool,” Heil said. “I think the cool thing about him is not that he’s an investor, I think the cool thing is that he did for very long a professional racing series, and you feel that. When he’s on the water, he’s not like sitting there, he’s making notes, and after we are back from the water, he is telling us from his point of view, what should be developed.”
Team Germany is 10th after the first two of 12 regattas. Three-time defending champion Team Australia has a one-point lead over Spain in the season standings, with Denmark, Canada and New Zealand close behind.
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