Marc Pajot (centre) is a veteran of four French America's Cup challenges and has twice been a semi-finalist. Pajot is leading a new challenge in a bid to win the next America's Cup. Team French Spirit entered AC 33, in 2007, and is now taking part in meetings with the Defender, in Geneva.
Marian Martin puts some questions to him about his new challenge and AC33 progress.
Tell us more about Team French Spirit. The website says you were asked by a group of investors to lead an America’s Cup project and you are supported by the French Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Developement. Can you tell us more about these investors and are you getting public funding from the Ministry?
Oh, no, we are talking with the Ministry and we will be making a statement on that very soon. Today, we are just supported by private investors, who are from around my new job! (laughs) I’m a yacht broker now, you know, and these are personal friends and some customers.
Do you think you can win, or are you just content to be part of it?
No, no, no, you know my past, in the America’s Cup. Well, I retired from the America’s Cup in 2000, but, seeing what has happened to French challenges, in the last couple of cycles, people started saying to me, even my family said to me "Marc, you have to go back." So, I decided I would do it, but as manager of the group, not involved in the boat. For that we have people like Phillipe Presti, Bertrand Pacé, the young guy Matthieu Richard, people who compete to win. So, we have the nucleus of our sailing team and, as soon as we know which boat we have to design, we will finalise the design.
BOR supporters have described leaders of new teams, like yours, and even some AC32 entrants as being Alinghi’s poodles, who have either been bribed, or bullied into entering AC33. Were you bribed, or bullied?
I can assure you that I entered of my own free will; that is for sure. You know, there is a lot of work in competing in the America’s Cup Even before the racing, before the regatta, there is a great deal to organise, a lot of work, it is not something to undertake lightly. We entered with the St Tropez Club, one year ago, and now this time we are re-entering and we are expecting to have a very good boat and a very good team.
I know you’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement, but can you tell us how these competitors meetings work; nobody has a vote, so how do you change, or decide on anything?
You know, it is not difficult, when you have a group of people around the table who all want to go in the same direction. It makes it easy to talk about new ideas and agree on those new ideas and to go ahead.
It’s hard to believe that a group of America’s Cup challengers can be as united as you portray this one to be.
The situation is that we are all committed and it costs a lot of money to everybody. In this situation, of a world economic crisis, sailing people know they have to work as a community and not be seen as frivolous people who are able to just be on a boat, playing with their toys. I think that everyone feels we are fortunate to be involved in such a sport and we are driven by a common passion for sailing.
At the beginning, Alinghi made some real mistakes, especially in the way they announced things, and they have recognised those mistakes, but that was more than one year ago. Today, if you look at the 10 points that Mr Coutts is saying, most of them are already resolved, maybe just two, or three that must still be discussed and resolved among the challengers. It is not for Alinghi to say “Yes, or no”, whilst the Americans keep going in the law courts; that is not reasonable.
BOR says it will drop the appeal if Alinghi adopts those 10 points. Have you considered saying to Alinghi “Please, just give in and let’s all get on with it.”?
As I said, we have discussed this 10 point plan and most have them have been addressed. All the discussions are round the table, with the 12 challengers, and that makes sense. What does not make sense is to make a demand and then go to a court; it is absolutely disproportionate. It is not in the spirit of a mutual challenge regatta that everyone should agree to these points, just because Russell Coutts decides this is his way forward.
Have you approached BOR directly about dropping the appeal?
No I haven’t, because I don’t think my voice would be very important to the Americans and that comes from my America’s Cup experience, though I was not involved in the last one. What I can say is that Alinghi has won the last two America’s Cup on the sports court and it was not surprising that they would want to build on the 32nd America’s Cup, which was a very good and a very sporting competition. It really was something quite exceptional, as a sporting event, and that was great. So, I cannot blame Alinghi for their approach, even though they did make some mistakes; we all make mistakes and those Alinghi made are far from what we have today.
In recent interviews, Dennis Conner has come out strongly against just about everything Alinghi has done, or is doing. You were running Cup teams in the Conner era, was everything so much better in those days?
This is one of the reasons I don’t speak directly to America. It’s a question of "What do we speak about"; do we speak about the past, or do we speak of those 10 points, of which 7 or 8 have been resolved, and the others are not very important points. They keep going over and over several points, but what they talk about are not the important points. The very important points were to decide that there should be only one boat; that teams could only have one boat and that Alinghi could not influence the challenger series, not participate in the final steps of the Challengers’ series. That is something to discuss further, because although a Defender can prepare with two boats, how can they prepare themselves with only one boat.
So, are you happy about Alinghi taking part in the challenger series?
Yes, I am happy with that, so long as they are not in the top four, and we have to find a way that is fair to all not to have the points they score interfere with the competition between the challengers, but we will find a way; when you want to do it, it is easy to find the right solution.
We know that the general public – as opposed to the sailing community – is not the least bit interested in TP52, Farr 40, or any other regatta. The America’s Cup is the only regatta they follow in a big way and a main attraction is the suspense about the Defender’s chances. How can that exist if the Defender sails in the Challenger series?
Yes, but the Defender will not be in the series to the end. If there is only one boat the Defender must sail in the Challenger series, if it is to be fair competition, but I think we will find a way to keep the suspense?
Wouldn’t it be better to say the Challengers can only have one boat, but the Defender can do two boat testing?
No, because that would be too big an advantage for the Defender, for sure; that would be a real advantage.
Tom Ehman has said “We have no choice, but to fight for fair rules for everybody, a chance to win on the water and that’s all we are fighting for.” That implies that he believes that you and all the other AC33 challengers have entered a competition you have no chance of winning. Do you think he really believes that?
No, there’s something else to that, but I don’t want to blame anybody. I just want to look at the rules and decide what is acceptable. Today, there is a community of twelve challengers, from around the world, and there is one team from the US saying things that bear no relation to the reality.
We told Alessandra Pandarese, last week, that several challengers have told us they have a better chance of winning under the AC33 protocol. She was unaware they felt like this and said she would like to talk to them and consider their points. Would you be willing to call her and put the French Spirit point of view?
I don’t think that is the way to solve this situation, for everyone to talk separately. Either you come into the group and discuss things within the group, or you are not in the group and you just want to fight; for what reasons I don’t know. I don’t understand why you would want to fight with the Alinghi group today. They admit they have made mistakes, they have put right those mistakes and, today, they are really in a position to go ahead with a positive attitude.
One last question; Serge Crasnianski invested $10 million in your French Kiss campaign, at a time of high unemployment, and said afterwards that it had a detrimental effect on his business, with people digging into why money was being spent on a boat, not on providing jobs.” These are very hard times and many companies could worry about that now. Do you think that you and all the other entered challengers will be able to raise enough money to make it to the line?
That is always the question when you want to enter an America’s Cup campaign , but the America’s Cup is the America’s Cup, it is the oldest sporting trophy in the world and, as such, it has a high profile and, for any company, it is very important to keep your name alive, in such difficult economic conditions. For that reason you cannot decide not to do any advertising, you have to keep going though not, perhaps, at the same level of investment. This is where having just one boat will help, because it will bring the cost down to under €50 million. So, looking at the situation in France, I do not see this as being something that we cannot achieve.