Alinghi throws down the gauntlet in Auckland
Landlocked Switzerland is preparing to take on the world's best sailing nations in the America's Cup.
Biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli has spent big and hired the best to give his team a fighting chance of winning the Auld Mug.
When Bertarelli decided to pursue sailing's greatest prize, he wasn't prepared to do things by halves. His Alinghi challenge is staffed with some of the yachting world's best minds.
The boss of Serono, one of the world's biggest biotechnology firms, has managed, by hiring the best designers, a talented staff and the best yachtsmen money can buy, to turn the sailing world on its head.
The Alinghi syndicate went as far as building not one, but two yachts before deciding which to race. The Swiss challengers announced on Saturday they would actually be using their older boat, SUI-64, for the first round-robin of the challenger series.
Among the favourites
He has made the Swiss team one of the favourites for the Louis Vuitton Cup, the competition that decides who will challenge the New Zealanders for the ultimate prize.
When Bertarelli went shopping for talent, he began by hiring Russell Coutts, the Kiwi who skippered the local defender successfully against Italian challenger Prada in 2000.
Coutts has been given a free hand over the past three years, putting together the Alinghi syndicate in Switzerland. He was joined by other members of Team New Zealand, as well as experienced sailors from other nations.
So impressive has been the Swiss team's preparation that many observers believe that Alinghi has the best chance, out of the nine foreign syndicates present in Auckland, of being the official Cup challenger.
This is not the first time a Swiss syndicate has made it to the preliminary round of the America's Cup. Last time, the Fast2000 yacht, skippered by Frenchman Marc Pajot, failed miserably to make any impact, hampered by a lack of money and poor design.
But the money spent by the Alinghi syndicate hasn't just been on people or sailing technology. One of the more visible aspects of the Swiss challenge is its high-tech base set up in Auckland harbour.
The base is home not just to the syndicate's two yachts, but also houses offices, workshops, a gym and even a physiotherapist's clinic.
Around 100 people work there around the clock. Behind closed doors, technicians prepare the two Class America boats, cut new sails, and modify the yachts to enhance their performances.
Given the expense and the secrecy surrounding the challenge, this remains off-limits to the public. Security is tight, and visitors are carefully screened.
But the Swiss team has taken a path never followed by syndicates in recent years.
Part of the base is open to the public, the "Alinghi Interactive Plaza", an entertainment and educational area designed to open a window on the world of sailing and the America's Cup in particular.
Visitors can follow the launching of the yachts and the crew preparing to head out into Hauraki Gulf, where the races themselves will be held.
"We thought the risk of letting people see our yachts was minimal," said Alinghi manager Michel Bonnefous. "We reckon sharing our passion is more important."
The interactive plaza has proven itself a hit with the public. By the beginning of the month, over 10,000 people had already made a visit, with the Louis Vuitton Cup only due to start in October.
The base, designed by Swiss architect Ugo Brunoni, has been operational for a year now.
"There was the ocean on one side, the city on the other," Brunoni told swissinfo. "We wanted to bring the two together."
The base is often considered a reflection of the Alinghi syndicate's philosophy.
"It incorporates high technology, without ever neglecting the human aspect," said Christian Karcher, one of the Swiss sailors.
The Alinghi base is a hive of activity, with 45 different professions all working towards one common goal: to bring the America's Cup to Europe for the first time.
swissinfo, François Egger in Auckland
Estimated budget: SFr90 million.
Alinghi base area: 4,000 square metres.
Two hangars for the syndicate's yachts as well as offices and technical facilities that remain off-limits.
Ernesto Bertarelli of Serono has prepared his own challenge for the America's Cup and has hired New Zealander Russell Coutts to lead it.
The last time a Swiss syndicate took part in the race, the Fast2000 yacht skippered by Frenchman Marc Pajot failed to make any impact.
However, the Swiss team's preparations have been very impressive this time round, making Alinghi a favourite to become the official Cup challenger.
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