Are Oracle trying to copy team New Zealand's pedal power?
Are America's Cup defenders Oracle trying to copy Team New Zealand's radical pedal-powered approach?
That's the talk swirling the Bermuda waterfront as the countdown to the start of official racing on May 27 intensifies.
Team New Zealand are using cyclists to fuel the hungry hydraulics that power the control systems for the massive wingsail and foils. The other five syndicates have all opted for traditional arm-power grinding stations.
The theory that legs are stronger than arms appears undeniable and there have been suggestions the Kiwis could have as much as 40 per cent more power available through their innovative system.
A key to winning this America's Cup will be the ability to keep the foiling 50-foot catamarans stable in flight, especially through turns – and power is central to that.
The cloak and dagger America's Cup is never shy of rumours and Italian daily newspaper La Stampa has floated the theory that Oracle Team USA might be ready to replicate the Kiwi system.
Italy don't have a team in this year's Cup following the early withdrawal of Luna Rossa in protest to Oracle changing the rules. But the regatta remains dear to the Italian sailing community.
Team New Zealand have a close relationship with Luna Rossa. They shared design ideas for the 2013 Cup and in this cycle the Italians provided the Kiwis with their test boat and some key personnel when they aborted their own challenge.
La Stampa said "a rumour that is gaining in consistency" has Oracle "working in a hangar on a pedal system like the one invented by Team New Zealand".
"So Oracle may follow them in this innovation to catch up. Maybe even hiring some champions on two wheels," they continued, suggesting proven cyclists could be used, though the compromise would be getting them up to speed quickly in terms of sailing techniques.
Oracle spies constantly monitored Team New Zealand's new boat when it was launched in mid-February and tested extensively on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour.
There seemed to be a feeling that the Kiwi boat was more efficient foiling through turns.
Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton said Oracle's constant surveillance made him believe his team was on to something.
"We have been watched very closely by the Oracle SoftBank [Team Japan] spies every minute we have been on the water and their vigilance makes me think we built a very good racing machine," Dalton said.
Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill was quick to dismiss the pedal system when Team New Zealand unveiled their unique approach. He said the Americans had investigated it but felt there was too much of a compromise in terms of moving the cycling grinders around the boat efficiently during manoeuvres. Oracle boss Russell Coutts and Dean Barker, skipper and CEO of Team Japan who share systems with Oracle, expressed similar doubts.
In launching their boat Team New Zealand felt their approach would be safe from replication because of the extensive amount of time they had invested into training their grinders as cyclists and also the systems they had implemented to make it work.
In the leadup to the 2013 America's Cup Team New Zealand made the foiling breakthrough on the massive 72-foot catamarans. But they were guilty of revealing their hand too soon and the other teams managed to copy them with Oracle eventually proving superior as the completed their remarkable comeback to retain the Auld Mug.
An Oracle U-turn on pedal power would be a dramatic late development, but desperate times can call for desperate measures, especially in a class were technology is such a dominating factor. Oracle certainly have the resources to attempt this, even with the clock ticking.
Fitting the cycling pedestals into the one-design hulls is possible as Team New Zealand have proven.
Interestingly, Oracle are allowed to build two boats but have so far only produced one.
Challengers are only allowed to build one boat.
The 2017 rules have been tweaked to allow defenders Oracle to participate in the first round of the traditional challengers racing.
Oracle will get a feel for the genuine speed of their opponents and then slip away to refine their own game while the challengers battle out the semifinals and final of the Louis Vuitton Cup.
Oracle will then take on the top challenger.
While Team New Zealand are the wildcard, Oracle already has a feel for their own standing a month out from the regatta.
Oracle and four challengers – Team New Zealand weren't involved – recently completed another phase of official practice racing in Bermuda. That saw Swedish syndicate Artemis Racing dominate at the expense of Oracle.
Reflecting on that practice racing, Coutts said: "USA didn't have a great series. Jimmy Spithill and Tom Slingsby will be looking to improve their consistency in manoeuvres and figure out better strategies to keep themselves in the race when they get behind."
Team New Zealand are now in camp in Bermuda and about to put their new boat in the water. They can expect plenty of attention.
The stakes are incredibly high in this regatta. Oracle, Artemis Racing, Team Japan, Team France and BAR (Great Britain) have signed an agreement to keep the current format moving forward, even racing the America's Cup every two years.
Team New Zealand didn't sign off on that and have indicated they would return to a more traditional racing format for the cup.