The sailing world has been rocked by the sensational dismissal of Kiwi racer Phil Robertson, who led Spain within reach of this season’s Sail GP Grand Final.
Robertson was the only non-Spanish national on the team which is currently fourth and still has a chance to qualify for the three-boat grand final to be contested in San Francisco Bay on Monday (AEDT).
The competition’s eight teams gathered in San Francisco earlier this week to practice for the final Grand Prix of the season, with the winner of the series set to take home $1.4 million in prize money.
READ MORE: Aussies narrowly escape $1.4m sailing ‘disaster’
READ MORE: Lyon spin Australia to historic series win
READ MORE: The Cats star’s incredible act for a fan amid chaos
Robertson was due to manage the Spanish team for the last time before taking up the pilot job for newcomer Canada when he joins the Sail GP fleet next season, which begins in May.
But the Kiwi was caught off guard when he showed up for a day of team training midweek only to be told by management he was no longer needed.
Wide World of Sports understands the Spanish team have been plotting to eliminate Robertson since the Sydney Grand Prix held in December last year, having already named Olympic bronze medalist Jordi Xammar to take his place next season. .
However, rather than inform Robertson of the decision to fast-track his exit, the Spanish team waited two days before the final Grand Prix of the season to tell him he was no longer needed, with Xammar having to step in for the first time this weekend before taking over as full-time driver of an all-Spanish crew next season.
Robertson was angered by the way the news was broken, setting up an instantly spicy rivalry between Spain and Canada in the next season, although Xammar were unwilling to add fuel to the fire during Saturday’s press conference (AEDT).
“To be honest we are very grateful to Phil, I think what he has done for the Spanish team has been really good and I personally know the team is very grateful to him,” Xammar said.
“But at the same time I think we’re in Sail GP as a team and we want to beat these guys. We know we’re realistically far (behind the top three teams) but these guys have a goal. and we want to beat them.”
Barring a dramatic incident on Sunday (AEDT), the three-boat Grand Final is set to be contested by Australia, USA and New Zealand helmed by three Australians who are the rock stars of the Sail GP circuit – Xammar describing them as “the three kings”.
Tom Slingsby captains the defending champion Australian crew, while two-time America’s Cup winner Jimmy Spithill gave the American crew a huge chance to take home the $1.4million on the water and Nathan Outteridge put the Japanese crew in position for a redemption shot after narrowly losing to Slingsby’s Australia in the inaugural series.
Only a mishap on Sunday can prevent these three teams from meeting in the grand final on Monday, but there are growing feelings that an explosive incident could shake up the series yet again, with strong winds forecast and several incidents at the training causing damage to some of the lead boats.
Australia will not take part in Saturday’s practice races due to a capsize on Friday, with Slingsby confirming at the press conference that he caused “significant damage” to the boat which will take all day to repair.
Had this incident occurred in Sunday’s race rather than a practice session, it would likely have knocked out the big favorites in the Grand Final, opening up a spot for whoever finishes the series in fourth place.
Earlier in the week, the American boat also capsized due to electronic systems failure, the incident made even more sensational by the fact that big wave surfing champion Kai Lenny was on board at the time. .
These two incidents, along with a frightening near-miss involving the Australian and American boats which could have seriously injured the sailors, raised eyebrows for some of the other crews, leaving the door ajar for Spain, Britain and the New Zealand make an unlikely late bid for a big final berth. If Australia, the United States or Japan damage their boats enough in Sunday’s race that they cannot take their place on the starting line on Monday, the boat sitting in fourth place will take their place for a shot. $1.4 million.
It’s a scenario that makes Spain’s decision to switch drivers on the eve of the competition even more surprising, but that’s not how Xammar sees it, with the newly appointed leader hinting at the disunity of the team being at the heart of Robertson’s early withdrawal.
“It’s a super important day for the team, it will be the first time that a full Spanish team will race in a boat like the F50s. We are extremely happy and excited,” Xammar said, conceding “it could be “considered risky to change drivers on the eve of such an important race weekend.
“I think beyond everything there is the team spirit and the future of the team and I think when we were here (with Robertson) training was a bit difficult and the team made the decision personally to jump here in the boat for the grand final. The other teams are in great shape and sharper than ever, it may not be the best, but above all there is has the team and the team made this decision.
“When all your teammates look at you and tell you they want to race with you, you can’t choose no. I’m very grateful to them and I can’t wait.”
For a daily dose of the best news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by click here!
Ash Barty’s Grand Slam win and 2022 in pictures: Perfect moment as world No. 1 makes history at Australian Open, then announces shock retirement