Mapfre set the Volvo Ocean Race bar with overall Leg Zero victory
Spanish team Mapfre completed overall Leg Zero victory in the early hours of Wednesday (16 August) and struck the first psychological blow in the build-up to the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18. But what the Leg Zero series of qualifiers confirmed above all is that all the teams boasting race experience and/or preparation time are extremely closely matched.
The newer teams know they have more work to do, but there are still plenty of positives to take from the progress they have made - and they still have time to close the gap with more than two months to go before the race starts from Alicante on 22 October.
Charlie Enright's Vestas 11th Hour Racing became the third team to grab a victory from four stages in Leg Zero - a series of pre-race qualifying stages for the next edition of the round-the-world race - as they sneaked ahead of Mapfre in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
With team AkzoNobel also overtaking Mapfre to grab second place, it was more proof that the leaders will always have to watch their backs.
For experienced teams and new entries alike, Leg Zero has proved to be an extremely valuable test.
The teams faced a variety of conditions, from a rough rounding of the Isle of Wight in conditions that Turn the Tide on Plastic skipper Dee Caffari described as 'almost as hard as the Southern Ocean'; a classic Rolex Fastnet Race; a quick sprint from Plymouth to Saint-Malo and an agonising drift in the leg from Saint-Malo to Lisbon, which eventually led to the stage being split in two and then brought to a premature close at 0430 UTC on Wednesday.
Enright was particularly satisfied to be able to grab an early victory heading into the 2017-18 edition.
"There may never be another one quite like that, but we'll take it," said the American. "We've been improving every day we spend on the boat together and it's nice to see that improvement manifest itself in the form of a win."
First-time skipper Simeon Tienpont on team AkzoNobel said after the series finish:"We knew already it's close action but definitely learnt how important it is to have the routine on board right and keep everyone focused all the time."
After months of training together in all conditions Mapfre skipper Xabi Fernández is eager for his team to recuperate before attacking the final preparations."One of the things we have to do now is have a good rest because it has been a lot of work over this last month," he said. "Then we work on the small details of the boat, do the last push in the gym, make sure everyone is healthy, then be focused on the start.
There will be no rest for British skipper Dee Caffari as Turn the Tide on Plastic - carrying the message of the United Nations Environment Clean Seas campaign - will be running at full speed in order to finalise their crew selection.
They may be playing catch-up but the 50/50 male/female, predominantly youth team, can certainly challenge the rest of the fleet as they proved in the last 48 hours: "To actually lead the fleet in this final stage of Leg Zero was absolutely awesome. The confidence it gave the team, you could see it, and the focus, the intensity, everyone raised their game because they could see the other boats so close."
With only 53 days remaining until the start of the Prologue from Lisbon to Alicante, now is the time for the teams to complete their final training at sea, their sponsor engagements and safety training.
These few weeks will be precious for Hong Kong entry Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, who had less than a week of training before starting Leg Zero.
Skipper David Witt and his team have years of experience of sailing together and will now redouble their efforts to extract the best from their One Design Volvo Ocean 65.
"The racing on Leg Zero has shown us what we're strong at, what we're weak at,"said Witt. "Mapfre have dominated, they've shown everybody how strong they are and they've set the bar where we've all got to get to. We are not weak in all areas - there are some areas we are quite good at. It's good to find this out now rather than on Leg two of the race. And now we've got five weeks to fix, I've got a pretty good idea how to fix it and now we've just got to get on with it."
While it's tempting to label Mapfre as favourites going into the race, none of the skippers will be taking anything for granted.
"I think Dongfeng is well prepared and they have been working hard all the winter as well," said Mapfre's Xabi. "The new teams, like AkzoNobel, are coming together with some good experience and improving every day they sail together. There is a good mix of crew across Brunel, very experienced and they will be very competitive."
Charles Caudrelier, whose Dongfeng team finished second overall and won the Volvo Ocean 65 class in the Fastnet, added: "I think I am happy. I think we had a good speed and a good spirit onboard. I'm pretty sure we can do very well."
Standing on the dock in Alicante in a couple of months' time, the crews will have 45,000 miles of sailing in front of them - and the knowledge that anything could happen.