SailGP: When high-speed racing hits the open seas
Four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel brings his elite driving pedigree to the extreme velocity global racing league and shares his experience.
We all remember those famous words from the movie Top Gun:
“I feel the need…the need for speed!”
Whether it’s a naval fighter plane, a Formula One (F1) racing car, or the Road Runner outmaneuvering Wile E. Coyote, the need for speed has always been a necessity.
Even sailboats—yes, sailboats—have joined the movement with a need for extreme velocity. And the newest place you can find them is SailGP.
Just ask four-time Formula One champion driver Sebastian Vettel, who didn’t quite know what to expect when he recently took the wheel of the Germany SailGP Team’s 50-foot foiling catamaran—the vessel of choice—for a test run off the Port of Los Angeles.
The 50-foot catamarans, called F-50s (and not to be confused with a certain Ferrari model), have a top speed of about 60 mph when the wind is up and they’re riding on their foils (lifting device), with the vessel taking flight above the waves.
Vettel is used to traveling at an average speed of 160 miles per hour during his 15-year career. But the smile on his face and his thumbs up gesture were proof enough that Vettel enjoyed the ride during a practice run at the recent Oracle Los Angeles Sail Grand Prix.
“Obviously, yes, I had the wheel and did some turns, but it takes a lot more than just having the wheel in your hand,” says Vettel, who is the co-owner of the German team that is making its debut in SailGP’s fourth season. “Very impressive, and all without an engine to have that much power and speed building up.”
He said the catamaran hit about 40 mph.
“On the water, it's a very different feeling. The speed feels a lot higher,” explains Vettel, who recorded 53 wins in his Formula One career. “Plus I was impressed with the turns, the G-force and the maneuvers you were able to do. And we were on our own out there. You can only imagine when you’ve got others [boats] around you, it’s a lot more exciting.”
The German boat went out by itself for some speed runs after the day’s racing had concluded. When all 10 boats are on the course, things can get crazy as the world’s top skippers jockey for position in sometimes close quarters—just like a motorsports race.
It’s not surprising that a former F1 driver would be attracted to SailGP, which uses cutting-edge technology both on and off the water.
Oracle chairman Larry Ellison and decorated New Zealand yachtsman Russell Coutts founded SailGP in 2018. Neither are new to the high-speed sailing game. Ellison has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on pursuing, winning, and defending the America's Cup, the oldest international sailing competition, through his Oracle Team USA. Coutts, meanwhile, has won the America’s Cup five times.
Foiling has dramatically changed sailing from a solemn competition to a true action sport. The F-50 has foil arms in the hulls, the term for the body of the boat, that are raised or lowered depending on the desired action of the craft.
There are also foils on the ends of both rudders, the term for the boat’s steering device. When the catamaran hits a certain speed, it lifts onto the foils and skims above the waves. Having the hulls out of the water reduces drag and makes the catamaran go faster.
When there’s a perfect confluence of wind and flat water, crews try to attain 100% “flight time,” or sailing an entire race up on their foils, without the hulls ever touching water.
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,” he said. “It's a sort of feeling you want more, more, more.”
Vettel was looking for a new challenge after retiring from F1 driving in 2022. A lack of competitive sailing experience did not deter his interest in SailGP. He was interested in the competition’s sustainability efforts and in how teams and regattas (that is, races) were organized. Going out and handling the boat was a great introduction to being a hands-on owner.
“It’s definitely been very useful and enjoyable because I still have so much to learn,” Vettel said. “I’m interested in how things work. 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.”
Team Germany’s skipper Erik Heil won bronze medals in consecutive Summer Olympics in the high-performance 49er skiff class, which is considered the gold standard of sailing.
Having Vettel as co-owner is “pretty cool,” Heil said. “I think the cool thing about him is not that he’s an investor, but that he had a very long professional racing series career, and you feel that. When he’s on the water, he’s not just sitting there, he’s taking notes, and after we are back from the water, he is telling us from his point of view what should be developed.”
Besides a skipper, each crew also has a flight controller whose job it is to keep the boat on the foils as much as possible. The power to skim across the tops of waves comes from the giant wingsail, which looks and functions like an airliner’s wing. There’s a sailor to control that, too, on the six-person crew.
Like all SailGP crewmembers, Vettel was outfitted with a crash helmet, flotation vest, an emergency oxygen supply, and other survival gear. The sport is not for the weary. Two American sailors suffered broken legs in accidents while training last season, and British sailing star Sir Ben Ainslie inexplicably crashed his catamaran into the Japanese boat during a regatta in Season 2, cutting off one of that boat’s bows.
Vettel sees the potential in SailGP and how it compares to Formula One.
“Parallels between the two have long existed,” he said. “The boats are fascinating and the speeds on the water are incredibly high. The races are exhilarating, and I am excited to be involved with such a motivated group.”
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