SAN FRANCISCO -- Thanks to a scintillating victory in what some are calling the greatest race in America's Cup history, Emirates Team New Zealand inched closer to reclaiming the oldest trophy in sports.
After Oracle Team USA impressively won Race 9 on Sunday, the Kiwis came back later in the day to win an epic Race 10 to take a 7-1 lead in the best-of-17 series. New Zealand can wrap up the 34th America's Cup if it can win twice Tuesday.
The Kiwis are in position to clinch after winning a race that organizers could have only hoped for when these high-tech, 72-foot, wing-sailed, hydrofoiled catamarans were launched on San Francisco Bay.
In Race 10, the boats were even at the start, but New Zealand had the better position rounding Mark 1 and led by four seconds. That lead was extended to 11 seconds after a downwind leg to Gate 2.
On Leg 3, Oracle's newfound improvements in upwind speed and tacking came into play. On this segment, the Americans reeled in the Kiwis. Over the last one-third of the leg, there were four lead changes. The crowd of near 50,000 combined at Piers 27/29 and Marina Green, cheered alternately as the boats exchanged the lead.
But approaching Gate 3, Oracle touched down while rounding the mark. Even though Oracle officially led by one second at Gate 3, it had lost momentum and New Zealand pulled away on Leg 4 heading downwind.
"Unfortunately, we touched down and they were able to re-establish going the other way," Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. "That was the critical part of the race."
New Zealand led by 11 seconds at Mark 4 and won by 17 seconds.
"If you didn't enjoy today's racing, you probably should watch another sport," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said.
The reason the racing has become so good is because Oracle has made significant improvements sailing upwind. That third leg was the part of the race New Zealand had dominated until Saturday.
In Saturday's Race 8, the Americans showed off improvements made to the boat and their sharpened tacking skills, matching New Zealand upwind. One day later, Oracle was clearly superior.
Besides making up ground on Leg 3 in Sunday's second race, Oracle used its newfound prowess upwind to turn Race 9 into a rout.
In Sunday's first race, Oracle gained 15 seconds on the upwind leg, stretching an 18-second lead at Gate 2 to 33 seconds at Gate 3. On that leg, Oracle was almost foiling upwind and tacking much more cleanly than it ever had. That led to a 47-second victory in Race 9.
With Races 11 and 12 scheduled for Tuesday (wind permitting), Monday could be a day for further development of the boats.
"This is the name of the game," Spithill said. "Like any racing sport, whether it be Formula One or MotoGP, you're constantly learning."
Those gains can still be important, even for New Zealand. The Kiwis lead 7-1 on the scoreboard but have been beaten by Oracle three times on the water. Oracle's first two victories only wiped out a two-point penalty for cheating last year during the America's Cup World Series.
So even with a sizable lead on the scoreboard, New Zealand knows that winning two more races will be a battle, now that Oracle has transformed itself into a formidable upwind force.
"It's going to be a case of making sure we keep developing," Barker said. "We're not standing still. There's a lot of gain still to be had on the table."
Contact Darryl Matsuda at 408-920-5215. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DarrylMatsuda.
Emirates Team New Zealand 7 points,
Oracle Team USA 1 point
Best-of-17 series or first team to 9 points
Tuesday: Races 11 and 12, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. on KNTV
Wednesday: Races 13* and 14*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. TBA
Thursday: Races 15* and 16*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. 1 p.m. on KNTV
Saturday: Race 17*, 1:15 p.m. 12:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
* -- if necessary
NOTE: Because of penalties, Oracle Team USA began the America's Cup with minus-2 points, meaning it would need to win 11 races to retain the America's Cup. New Zealand needs to win nine. If necessary, Races 18 and 19 will be added to the schedule.
New Zealanders amazed to find Americans rooting for Kiwis to take back the America's Cup trophy.
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