MAPFRE’s Joan Vila sees all change since his last Volvo Ocean Race victory


Vila became the first Spaniard ever to lift the coveted trophy when he and John Kostecki masterminded Illbruck Challenge’s win in 2001-02, in his fourth Volvo Ocean Race outing.

But since then his name has been notably absent from team sheets as he turned his attention to the America’s Cup and round the world record projects.

In the 15 years Vila has been away from the race it has developed dramatically, getting tougher, longer and faster.

© Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race

Now, Vila is about to make his grand return to the Volvo Ocean Race having signed up with Xabi Fernandez’s MAPFRE crew – and he’s the first to admit he’s on a steep learning curve.

“There are lots of things to learn – lots of things have changed since I last took part,” the 55-year-old said. “The race has got even better, even more professional. For sure I’m a bit rusty and I still have a lot of things to learn – it’s a bit like I’m doing this race for the first time again.”

The biggest change comes in the shape of the boats raced.

Illbruck Challenge was a Volvo Ocean 60, a class developed for the 1993-94 race and governed by a box rule that allowed teams to design their own boats as long as they met certain parameters.

In stark contrast the chariot that will carry the MAPFRE team around the world in 2017-18 is a cutting edge Volvo Ocean 65, a one design class introduced for the 2014-15 race that ensures all crews sail exactly the same boat.

The idea behind the one design fleet is to level the playing field, putting the emphasis back onto the teams to out-manoeuvre one another.

It makes for scintillatingly tight racing for fans, but for Vila, calling the tactics, it means even more pressure.

“In my day everyone sailed different designs with different sails,” he said. “Even boats that were similar could have completely different setups.

“That has changed now, and it puts the emphasis on sailing the boat fast in the right direction.

“The Volvo Ocean 65s are so close that any mistake you make is obvious very quickly. You need to get every move right. I think the key in any of these races is to keep it steady. There will be good and bad moments but we have to keep a good average of good calls.”

© Jen Edney/Volvo Ocean Race

Jen Edney/Volvo Ocean Race

Since Vila’s Volvo Ocean Race victory in 2001-02 only one other Spanish sailor has won – Roberto ‘Chuny’ de Bermudez with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in 2014-15.

Fernandez’s outfit are recognised as one of the pre-race favourites alongside Dongfeng Race Team, and a win in the qualifying Leg Zero series only bolstered their position.

If they were to emerge victorious in nine months time they would be the first Spanish team ever to win the Volvo Ocean Race.

But Vila, for now at least, is remaining tight-lipped on the Spanish team’s chances.

“It’s difficult to forecast any sport, but so far we’re quite happy about our preparation,” he said. “We know it’s going to be a long race and so we have to be careful, but the feeling among the team is strong.”

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