Into the semis
Cheered on by unofficial flag-waving fan clubs on Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier, they joined Terry Hutchinson, the 1992 winner and week-long American frontrunner, and 2007 winner Mathieu Richard of France as part of a multi-national Final Four and immediately seized 1-0 leads in the best-of-three semifinals.
Following completion of the last three rounds of the double round-robin, Berntsson, the runner-up the previous two years, defeated Richard by 22 seconds as Bruni trounced Hutchinson by 55 seconds - which means that Hutchinson and Richard each need to win two straight Saturday to survive into the best-of-three finals in the afternoon.
The racers were finally blessed by a relatively steady "normal" Long Beach southwest sea breeze topping at 12 knots, which favored the right side of the course through the later races.
Bruni arrived rated 76th in the ISAF rankings, which didn't reflect his status as the current Melges 24 world champion and skipper of Italy's fourth-place finisher in the recent Louis Vuitton Pacific Cup for America's Cup teams at Auckland. But since he filled the 10th and last slot in the lineup, he has been referred to instead as "a late entry" (who wrote that?) more than a contender.
"I'm a little tired of that reputation," the good-natured native of Palermo said at Friday night's skippers press conference. "Of course, I'm not the favorite, but we are doing good starts and doing the right things. It's not like we never sailed before."
Bruni showed a flair for improvising when he led Hutchinson behind the eastern wing of the pier - a rare tactic that worked when he timed the move to lead Hutchinson back out to the start line.
"We thought about it before the race," Bruni said. "The wind was very much [to the right] and we had the opportunity to get the lead."
As for Berntsson, he showed boldness under pressure to recover from a 4-7 won-lost record in mid-week to win seven of his last eight races, pulling off the bold move of the day to beat Finland's Staffan Lindberg for the win that put him in the sailoffs.
Berntsson finished the round-robins tied with New Zealand's Adam Minoprio, the 23-year-old winner of this month's World Match Racing Tour opener at Marseille. Both had 10-8 records after Minoprio followed Thursday's 5-0 run with a 0-3 mark Friday and then lost the tiebreaker to Berntsson on the Swede's win against him in the second round.
"We knew we had to win all of our matches and see what happened," said Berntsson, who won last year's Bermuda Gold Cup on the tour. "We were lucky."
And bold. Trailing downwind close to windward of Lindberg near the end of the first of two laps, Berntsson suddenly whipped his boat across the Finn's bow. Both protested but the on-water umpires ruled that Berntsson had the right of way and flagged Lindberg for a foul.
"We didn't break the overlap," Berntsson said, "but we were obliged for room to go for the mark. The only way he could [gain right of way] to take us outside the mark was to do a double jibe, so we waited. As soon as he did the [first] jibe, we jibed before he could do the second."
Berntsson's pit man, Niklas Calzon, said the move wasn't typical of his skipper, noting that "he always keeps pretty calm. Sometimes he gets too quiet, really."
Neither a Swede nor an Italian has ever won the Congressional Cup.
"Yeah, I know that," Berntsson said. "They were telling me that the two times I was second."
Bruni said, "I don't want to think about it."
Later, at the press conference, Richard, the only Frenchman to win, reminded Berntsson, "The year we won we sailed against Johnie in the semifinals, and he won the first match."
Touché, Berntsson smiled from down the table.
It's true that while Bruni, who has won seven races in a row, and Berntsson may be the hottest sailors, Hutchinson and Richard aren't slowing down. Hutchinson has won six of his last eight while Richard won his last 11 in the round-robins before falling to Berntsson.
Richard's loss to Berntsson was dealt at the a start when a sudden wind lull left him stuck behind the committee boat and 20 seconds behind when he was able to cross the line.
Ben Ainslie, Great Britain, def. Philippe Presti, France, 1:08; Terry Hutchinson, USA, d. Sébastien Col, France, 0:32; Francesco Bruni, Italy, d. Adam Minoprio, New Zealand, 0:04; Johnie Berntsson, Sweden, d. Brian Angel, USA, 0:50; Mathieu Richard, France, d. Staffan Lindberg, Finland, 0:58.
Bruni d. Hutchinson, 0:15; Berntsson d. Minoprio, 0:15; Richard d. Angel, 0:15; Presti d. Col, 0:09; Lindberg d. Ainslie, 0:43.
Hutchinson d. Minoprio, 0:11; Bruni d. Angel, 0:35; Berntsson d. Lindberg, 0:35; Richard d. Presti, 0:16; Col d. Ainslie, DNF.
Final double round robin standings: 1. Hutchinson, 15-3; 2. tie between Bruni and Richard, 13-5; 4. tie between Berntsson and Minoprio, 10-8 (Berntsson wins tiebreaker); 6. Ainslie, 9-9; 7. Col, 7.5-10; 8. Lindberg, 7-11; 9. Presti, 4-14; 10. Angel, 1-17.
Semi-finals (best of three)
Berntsson d. Richard, 0:22 (leads 1-0).
Bruni d. Hutchinson, 0:55 (leads 1-0).