Volvo Ocean Race: Closest ever race develops into a four way battle

Fireworks go off, as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing finishes first on leg 7, from Miami, USA to Lisbon, Portugal, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12.

Two legs, 2,500 miles and three inshore sprints will decide the closest ever Volvo Ocean Race – and with four boats in with a shot of winning, points have never been more crucial.

Never in the 39-year history of the Volvo Ocean Race have four boats been in with a realistic chance of winning with just around 10 days of offshore sailing left to go.

After usurping long-term leaders Telefónica following Leg 7, Groupama top the overall standings with just two offshore legs left -- but with only 21 points lying between them and fourth-placed Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand everything is still to play for.

Team Telefonica, skippered by Iker Martinez from Spain, narrowly beat CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand, skippered by Chris Nicholson from Australia on leg 7, from Miami, USA to Lisbon, Portugal, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. (Credit: PAUL TODD/Volvo Ocean Race)
six-month stronghold came to an end with Groupama taking second in the 3,590-nautical mile race from Miami to Lisbon while Iker Martínez’s crew had to settle for fourth.

Though far from happy with their position, Martínez said his only focus was the overall race result, which will come down to the results of Leg 8 from Lisbon to Lorient, expected to take around a weel, and the three-day Leg 9 sprint from Lorient to Galway, as well as the Lisbon, Lorient and Galway in-port races.

'The truth is that the only thing all of us will remember will be how we end up in Galway,' he said. 'We always said our goal was to be in a position to fight for the race in the final leg. Today we are there so it's not bad but obviously it's not as good as we have been.'

Although delighted to be in front, it’s the same cautious outlook in the Groupama camp. Skipper Franck Cammas, an offshore sailing hero in France, knows there’s plenty more racing lying between his team and the Volvo Ocean Race trophy.

'We didn’t expect this when we started in Alicante, so to be in this position with just two legs to go is a dream for us as we are a new entry team,' said Cammas, skippering the first French entry in the race since Eric Tabarly’s La Poste back in 1993-94.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, skippered by Ian Walker from the UK celebrate finishing first on leg 7, from Miami, USA to Lisbon, Portugal, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. (Credit: IAN ROMAN/Volvo Ocean Race)
Being overall leader is a good moment, but the race is not finished for sure. We are not alone -- there are still three or four boats that can win this race. We just need to make sure we have no regrets in Galway. It’s not easy to become leader of this race so it’s important we keep this position.'

The scoring system for the 2011-12 race ensures there is still plenty of scope for a reshuffle. The offshore legs offer 30 points for first, 25 for second, 20 for third and so on down to five points for sixth. For the in-port races, it’s six points for first, five for second, fourth for third and down to one point for sixth. A boat that wins both legs and three in-port races will score the maximum 78 points still available.

With two wins, a second and a third from the last four offshore legs, Puma Ocean Racing are serious contenders. Coupled with consistent results in the in-port races, they have scored more points than any other team in the last two months and now sit third in the rankings, 12 points shy of Groupama.

'We’re still very confident -- we have just beaten two out of our three closest competitors in this leg, and before that we won the previous two legs,' said skipper Ken Read after his team beat Camper and Telefónica into Lisbon.

Had Puma not lost their mast during Leg 1 they would most likely be topping the leaderboard at this crucial stage – and navigator Tom Addis said the crew had made it their aim to become the first team ever to win the race without completing every leg.

Groupama Sailing Team skipper Franck Cammas from France, is interviewed after finishing second, on leg 7, from Miami, USA to Lisbon, Portugal, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. (Credit: IAN ROMAN/Volvo Ocean Race)
When we dropped the rig in the first leg it was a mantra of ours that we wanted to win this race with the handicap of not actually completing all the legs,' he added. 'It’s funny though – we really didn’t expect to be here but you keep chipping away, we got a few wins, and here we are.'

Camper’s fifth place finish in Leg 7 means they are now 21 points shy of the new leaders, but skipper Chris Nicholson has far from thrown in the towel.

'While there’s a remotest chance of winning we’ll be there,' he said. 'Just look at the different positions we were in in this leg and what could have been… why can’t that happen again in the next two legs? There’s plenty more to go.'

With just two legs remaining, both under 1,000 miles long, Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad reckons it’s still a four-way race for overall victory.

'It’s going to be very close racing in these last two legs,' he said. 'They are short legs. You have land on one side to some extent and that means it is very likely that we will have very close finishes. When you have very close finishes, anything can happen.'

The final scoring opportunity in this edition of the race will be the in-port race in Galway on July 7 -- and there’s every chance the race won’t be decided until that Saturday afternoon.