After enduring two days of relentless gale-force winds buffeting the scenic south coast of England, the 2023 Formula Kite European Championships finally burst into action with a riveting qualifying series hosted in Portsmouth, England.
With four more days of intense racing on the horizon, the 112 riders representing 28 nations approached this pivotal day as a high-stakes duel, fully aware that securing a spot in the coveted 25-rider Gold Fleet racing, set to commence on Thursday, was their primary objective.
Great Britain's pride, Connor Bainbridge, had dual aspirations – to deliver a spectacular performance on his home turf and to clinch the European title. However, the ultimate prize he coveted was the lone qualifying berth for next year's Olympic Games.
Following a somewhat underwhelming performance at the recent Worlds, the weight of expectations rested squarely on Bainbridge's shoulders, demanding a podium-worthy display. Bainbridge started his campaign strongly, dominating his section of the qualifying draw with an impressive sequence of 1, 1, 3, 1, and 5.
Remarkably, he achieved these scores while adopting a conservative approach. "I aimed for a rather 'boring' day on the scoreboard, intending to steer clear of major blunders and minimize risks," Bainbridge remarked. As the day progressed, the challenges mounted.
The tide in the Solent shifted, bringing a substantial amount of seaweed onto the racecourse, altering the race dynamics. "Priorities on the racecourse changed, and many competitors encountered crashes and mishaps. So, the objective became safety-first – not pushing too hard and adapting to the changing conditions," explained Bainbridge.
Seaweed was just one facet of an incredibly demanding day, with multiple factors in play. The wind fluctuated unpredictably, interspersed with rain clouds and bursts of sunshine, making kite selection a formidable challenge.
Riders often initially judged the conditions as suitable for 15 square meter kites on Eastney Beach, only to find the kites losing their wind as they approached the start, necessitating a hasty switch to the more potent 23 square meter option.
Intense Battle: Pianosi Triumphs
Across the other side of the qualifying draw, Italy's Riccardo Pianosi and Germany's Jannis Maus vied for supremacy in the yellow group. In stark contrast to Bainbridge's 'boring' strategy, Maus embraced risk, executing a daring port tack start across the fleet.
"I aimed for the right-hand side of the course, and I believe the gamble paid off," said Maus, who claimed victory in that race and had an outstanding day with scores of 3, 1, 3, 2, and 3. Nevertheless, it was the 20-year-old Pianosi who emerged as the standout performer, concluding qualifying with consistently strong scores of 1, 2, 1, 1, and 2, securing the top position on the men's leaderboard.
Amid these dramatic developments, some prominent contenders grappled with the complexities of the day, with riders such as Cyprus' Denis Taradin, and France's Benoit Gomez and Nico Parlier failing to advance to the gold fleet.
Taradin, surprisingly philosophical about his placement in the silver fleet, commented, "I'm delighted to have secured Cyprus' Olympic qualification three weeks ago at the Worlds." While it alleviated the immediate pressure, it wasn't Taradin's primary goal in Portsmouth.
In the women's division, Ellie Aldridge delivered a spectacular performance, winning four out of five races in her qualifying group, often by substantial margins. The British sensation's scorching form and unyielding desire to capture her maiden European title were evident.
Meanwhile, France's Poema Newland showcased remarkable strength in the other qualifying group, clinching victory in three of her five races despite the unusual and physically taxing conditions. "There's a lot of seaweed, and the water feels different," noted the French athlete.
"I had to adopt a more cautious approach on the reaches to avoid mishaps, and I might have been moving about 5 knots slower than usual. Nevertheless, after the two days of waiting, it's a relief to be back in the race." In the women's standings, Aldridge held a slim one-point lead over Newland, with Britain's Lily Young securing third place overall with a victory in the final race of the session.
Friday promises a reshuffling of the fleets into Gold and Silver Fleets, setting the stage for a showdown among the top riders on the same starting line. With a slightly stronger westerly breeze in the forecast, the aim is to complete four races during the afternoon.
The climactic finale of the competition is slated for Sunday, September 24th, when the top 10 contenders will vie for a place on the podium in the Medal Series. The last two days of action will be broadcast live on YouTube and Facebook.
Current Standings after Day 3:
1. Riccardo Pianosi (ITA) - 5 points
2. Connor Bainbridge (GBR) - 6 points
3. Jannis Maus (GER) - 9 points Women:
1. Ellie Aldridge (GBR) - 5 points
2. Poema Newland (FRA) - 5 points
3. Lily Young (GBR) - 8 points The stage is set for an exhilarating competition as riders from around the world continue their quest for glory in the 2023 Formula Kite European Championships. Stay tuned for more thrilling action from Portsmouth.