Prada CEO Bertelli's Cup quest spurred by Blake's advice

Two decades after his startup Prada Challenge was swept out of the America’s Cup match by Team New Zealand, Italian billionaire Patrizio Bertelli continues to be motivated by the advice of the late Kiwi sailing champion Sir Peter Blake.

Blake wrote the foreword for a book about Prada Challenge's 2000 campaign, encouraging the Italians to keep trying despite the crushing disappointment of that loss and the long odds of winning sailing’s marquee regatta.

Bertelli took Blake’s words to heart. Four campaigns later, Bertelli’s team, now known as Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team, is back in the America’s Cup match. Luna Rosa Prada Pirelli Team and defending champion Emirates Team New Zealand are tied 2-2 after splitting races on the first two days of the best-of-13 series being sailed in fast, foiling 75-foot yachts on the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland.

“As Peter Blake wrote to us, in the America’s Cup you are not meant to give up; the America’s Cup is not for the faint-hearted,” Bertelli said in an email from Italy. “Winning the America’s Cup is almost impossible; almost, but not completely. It is this difficulty that makes any adventure worthwhile.”

Blake helped New Zealand win the America’s Cup for the first time, in 1995, and then managed the Kiwi team in 2000 when it beat Prada Challenge. He was killed by pirates while on an environmental exploration trip on the Amazon in December 2001.

In the five campaigns under Bertelli, Luna Rossa has brought style, passion and determination to the America’s Cup. Bertelli is CEO of Prada. His wife, Miuccia Bianchi Prada, is the head designer at the fashion house.

Besides backing the sailing team — along with tire manufacturer Pirelli — Prada has put its imprint on the competition itself. Prada took over naming rights for the challenger series, which had been known for more than 30 years as the Louis Vuitton Cup, and is a presenting sponsor of the America’s Cup.

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team got stronger as the Prada Cup went on. It swept the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic in four races in the semifinal and then beat Sir Ben Ainslie’s INEOS Team UK 7-1 in the final. Afterward, its sailors drank Mumm Champagne out of the silver Prada Cup trophy.

“It is a great satisfaction both from the point of view of Luna Rossa and Prada,” Bertelli said. “Luna Rossa has allowed Italians, and not only, to experience the same joy and excitement as happened 2000, and in the same waters off Auckland."

This version of Luna Rossa might be Italy’s best chance yet to hoist the Auld Mug for the first time in its 170-year history. Il Moro di Venezia lost the 1992 match 4-1 to America3. Prada Challenge, founded by Bertelli in 1997, lost 5-0 to Team New Zealand in 2000.

Bertelli was the first Italian inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, achieving the honor in 2012 despite not having won the oldest trophy in international sports.

Luna Rossa’s sailing team is led by two former America’s Cup champions. Co-helmsman Jimmy Spithill, an Australian, steered Oracle Team USA to victories in 2010 and 2013, the latter in a stunning comeback against Emirates Team New Zealand.

Team director and skipper Max Sirena, who doesn’t sail on the stylish black boat, helped Oracle Team USA beat a Swiss team in 2010 in a one-off match that was the result of a bitter court fight. After Luna Rossa withdrew from the 2017 America’s Cup to protest a mid-cycle change in the size of the boats, Sirena became a technical director with Emirates Team New Zealand, which routed Spithill’s Oracle Team USA.

Spithill, who also helmed Luna Rossa in the 2007 challenger trials, steers on starboard tack while Italian Francesco “Checco” Bruni steers on port tack.

Finally winning the America’s Cup “would be a reason of pride for all our fans and for Italy,” Bertelli said.

Luna Rossa has captured the attention of fans back home who have to rise early in the morning to watch racing on TV.

“Absolutely!” Bertelli said. “Live TV ratings have risen to incredible and unexpected levels, beating all forecasts, and interest is very high. The enthusiasm is reminiscent of 2000 and all of Italy has gathered around Luna Rossa. It is no longer an event limited to sailing enthusiasts and experts, but a true popular national phenomenon!”

Bertelli, 74, is a sailor as well as a businessman. “My holidays are spent cruising with the family boat — but I have a lot of fun racing in the classic yacht championships,” he said.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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