After two days of delays from gale-force winds along the south coast of England, a frenetic qualifying series made for a fascinating start to competition at the 2023 Formula Kite European Championships in Portsmouth, England.
With four days of racing remaining, the 112 riders from 28 countries knew that today was a big day of do-or-die qualification battle. The men and the women’s fleets were both divided into two qualifying groups, and the first hurdle was to make sure to break through into the 25-rider Gold Fleet racing which begins on Thursday.
As Great Britain’s leading men’s kiter, Connor Bainbridge wants to put on a good show on home waters. More importantly he’d like to win a European title and maybe even more importantly he’s gunning for the single qualifying spot that is available for getting to next year’s Olympic Games. Having underperformed at the recent Worlds, the pressure was on Bainbridge to bounce back and put in a podium performance.
So far so good, as the Briton dominated his side of the qualifying draw with scores 1,1,3,1,5. An impressive set of scores, especially considering he was aiming to be conservative. “I went out there really to have a bit of a boring day on the scores, really aiming not to make any big mistakes, to minimise my risk as much as possible,” he said.
This got harder as the day wore on. When the tide in the Solent turned, the current brought a lot of sea weed on to the race course. “The priorities of the race course changed, and there were a lot of people crashing, making mistakes, so the aim was to be much more safe, not push it too hard, and to change your style for the changing conditions.”
The weed was just one aspect of a really challenging day where there so many factors in play. The breeze was pulsing up and down, rain clouds interspersed with periods of sunshine, making it a really tough day for the race committee as well as for the riders trying to work out which size of kite to choose. The breeze often looked strong enough for the 15 square metre when the riders were standing on Eastney Beach but often by the time they got out to the start the kites were softening and they were racing back to the beach to switch up to the more powerful 23 square metre option.
On the other side of the qualifying draw, Italy’s Riccardo Pianosi and Germany’s Jannis Maus were battling for top honours in yellow group. Contrary to Bainbridge’s so called ‘boring’ approach to the day, Maus was the risk taker, daring to pull off a port tack start across the front of the fleet. “I wanted the right-hand side of the course and I think it was worth the risk,” said Maus who won that race and altogether had a great day on the water with scores of 3,1,3,2,3. However it was the 20-year-old Pianosi who stole the show with really rock-solid scores of 1,2,1,1,2 to find himself topping the men’s leaderboard at the end of qualifying.
Meanwhile other leading lights really struggled with all the complex challenges of the day, and top riders including Denis Taradin from Cyprus along with France’s Benoit Gomez and Nico Parlier failed to make the cut for gold fleet. Taradin was surprisingly philosophical about finding himself in silver fleet. Asked about his disappointing day he smiled: “I’m very happy that I qualified Cyprus for the Olympics three weeks ago at the Worlds.” That certainly takes the pressure off for the bigger picture of the Games next summer, but it’s not what Taradin came to do in Portsmouth.
Ellie Aldridge won four out of five races in her qualifying group, and some of those races by an enormous margin. The British rider is on fire and clearly has the desire to win her first European title. France’s Poema Newland was almost as strong in the other qualifying group, winning three of her five races despite finding the conditions really unusual and very demanding on the legs. “There is a lot of weed but also the water doesn’t feel normal,” said the French rider. “I was going really slow on the reaches to avoid crashes, and maybe I was going 5 knots slower than normal. But after all the waiting from the past two days it is good to get racing again.”
Aldridge leads the women’s standings a single point ahead of Newland, with Britain’s Lily Young winning the last race of the session and lying in third overall.
On Friday the fleets are reorganised into Gold and Silver Fleets, and it will be a first opportunity for all the top riders to line up against each other on the same start line. With slightly stronger westerly breeze forecast, the aim is to complete four races during the afternoon.
The last day of competition is Sunday 24 September, when the top 10 will fight for a place on the podium in the Medal Series.
1. Riccardo Pianosi ITA 5.0p
2. Connor Bainbridge GBR 6.0p
3. Jannis Maus GER 9.0p
1. Ellie Aldridge GBR 5.0p
2. Poema Newland FRA 5.0p
3. Lily Young GBR 8.0p
The finals weekend (23-24 September) is completely FREE to attend for spectators. Come along and watch the world’s best riders battle it out just metres from the shore at Eastney Beach.
The Event Village will feature music, food and drink stalls, kids activities, opportunities to try watersports and a big screen to view all the action on the water.
The final two days of racing will also be livestreamed on YouTube and Facebook so you can watch remotely.