Closer and closerThis is it - the day before the day the medals start coming Great Britain's way big time at the Olympic regatta in Sydney. Shirley Robertson might have sailed a race nine shocker in years gone by, but on Thursday she came up with another "glamour" finish, to set herself firmly on course for Olympic gold.
In Lasers, Ben Ainslie and Robert Scheidt are now off on their own in the battle for gold and silver and, as happened in Savannah four years ago, this scrap between two of the world's best sailors looks likely to go right down to the wire before we discover which of them is destined to be champion.
The good news for Britain is set to continue on Saturday, when racing in the Finns and Stars reaches its conclusion. Iain Percy is still the man to beat in the Finns - he won his second race of the series on Thursday - and he's still cool as a cucumber. While Ian Walker and Mark Covell are looking more and more like medallists in the Stars every day. On Thursday, they added a second place finish to their score, putting them just four points behind the leaders, Torben Grael and Marcelo Ferreira of Brazil, with four races to sail.
With so many riches to enjoy, it's difficult to know where to start. Robertson remains the biggest surprise in many ways. No one who has seen her at her best could have doubted that she was capable of winning an Olympic medal, but we had grown used to her not performing at the big championships. There is still time for things to get away from her, but now all she needs is to finish one more race in the top five and beat the Argentinian, Serena Amato, in the process and the gold is hers.
Race nine took place on an inner harbour course, in 15-18 knots with a good chop lumped up by wind against tide, and she was the model of consistency. She started unexceptionally, then sailed a good beat and was fourth at the first mark. A superb run saw her up to first at the leeward mark and after that she was always in the top four. On the last run, she sailed fast and deep and overtook Melanie Dennison of Australia to snatch second.
With two races left, she thus regains the overall lead, 11 points ahead of Amato with the heavy pre-regatta gold medal favourite, Margriet Matthysse of Holland, in third place another 11 points back. Amato is good in light air but cannot handle the breeze and this was cruelly evident when she could do no better than 14th on Thursday. So Robertson will be looking for more of the same on Friday.
Ainslie had a bad day which didn't turn into an awful one only because of his limitless drive and determination, which saw him recover from two bad starts to finish 11th and fifth. This cuts his lead over Scheidt from 14 points to four and leaves the Briton looking vulnerable once the next discard comes into force - when he will be six points adrift. After racing, Ainslie looked absolutely shattered as he chatted to journalists in the boatpark, and you sensed for the first time just how much this is taking out of him.
It was a day that had left him mentally and physically drained. In the first race he got the wrong side of the first beat and then struggled to fight his way through the traffic and only managed to recover at the end. In the second race, he thought his charge for gold had finished when he got yellow-flagged at the start for excessive body movement. The resultant 720 penalty turn left him deep, yet he never gave up, finding a lane up the right which paid as the breeze moderated and he was back in the pack by the first weather mark. Then, in true Ainslie style, he clawed his way back to fifth - it was the stuff of champions.
The mathematics mean Ainslie is going to have to put in a good race in the first heat on Friday - the penultimate race in the series - if he is to hold off Scheidt in the run-in. The Brazilian, meanwhile, needs to avoid another bad finish - he's got two results in the twenties to Ainslie's one - if he is to retain his Olympic title.
Summing it all up, Ainslie told madforsailing, "Lasers go pretty much the same speed in these sort of conditions so if someone gets it right, then it's quite hard to get past them. It's just two races left and there's hardly anything in it, so I'm just going to sail as well as I can and go for it."
Iain Percy has Ainslie's ability to recover from setbacks and not be put off. In Thursday's only race outside Sydney Harbour Heads he hit the first weather mark after misjudging his approach in strong tide. The resultant 360 penalty turn allowed the Croatian Karlo Kuret - who was looking surprisingly "rapid" according to Percy - to get through, but the British ace was not behind for long and overhauled him to take his second win of the series.
"It's difficult with the waves out there," reflected Percy in his familiar deep monotone. "A lot of it comes down to the steering and body movement - more so than in the Harbour where pace is much more defined by the rig. I prefer it outside, it's much safer," he added. Although the series is going well, Percy is having no problems motivating himself. "You get pretty fired up when the gun goes and every race you get a real adrenaline rush and you know you're off and you're into it," he said.
With four races left Percy is eight points ahead of Fredy Loof of Sweden who, in turn, is four points ahead of Luca Devoti of Italy. The defending Olympic champion, Mateusz Kusnierewicz of Poland, is looking vulnerable in fifth place at this stage, 20 points off the pace.
In Stars, Ian Walker and Mark Covell are beginning to wonder whether something special is happening. In Thursday's only race they were second - their fourth top three finish in seven starts - and they are going exceptionally well for a pair of underdogs. They read the first beat correctly and then made a big play at the first windward mark, coming in with lots of adverse tide. "We learnt last year at the pre-Olympics that when the tide is running strong and with waves, it's really easy to hit the windward mark," explained Walker.
"We'd seen the whole thing before last year and we knew not to tack too early. The Spanish (Jose Maria van de Ploeg) and Mark Reynolds (USA) got tangled up at the mark, so we went out of our way to make sure the Greek (Leonidas Pelekanakis) didn't make us tack too early and that's how we got safely round. It was a big play to get round clean because the rest of the fleet got bogged down there," he added.
Covell explained it from his vantage point, "It was good communication," he said. "Ian was stitching up the Greek and I was watching how the other two were doing. I was letting him know when to go. We knew they'd understood the mark and had to tack back onto port and we went a little bit further to make sure - it was really good team work."
Walker reflected on the way the series has gone so far. "I haven't been nervous once in the regatta and the results we have got so far take the pressure off us for the rest of the week. We've shown we can compete and if things go our way, then it might work out even better at the end of the week," he said.
In Men's 470s Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield came within one point of a bronze medal, but lost out to the Argentinian crew who nipped past the Mexicans at the last mark before the finish, to clinch third overall. In Solings, Roy Heiner of Holland beat Rod Davis of New Zealand in a sudden-death one-race sail-off to secure his berth in the semi-finals.