Niklas Zennström: The TP52 circuit is the best-managed and most competitive big-boat fleet racing right now
Niklas Zennström, the Swedish billionaire businessman famous for creating Skype, is currently in Valencia, taking a very close look at the TP52 World Championship for a very good reason. He just made public his entry into the TP52 fleet with a yacht that is already being built at Green Marine. Zennström is an avid sailor and active participant in the Mini Maxi circuit with the Vrolijk-designed 72ft but for him "the TP52 circuit is the best-managed and most competitive big-boat fleet racing you can have right now".
As for the America's Cup, it is something that has never been in Zennström's agenda. As he confessed, he loves sailing and wants to helm his yacht as much as possible, while being competitive. There is no fun in writing checks without racing yourself... We talked to Zennström before Wednesday's racing.
Valencia Sailing: What made you take the decision to enter the TP52 class?
Niklas Zennström: I have been following the TP52 circuit for some time now and in my view it is the best-managed and most competitive big-boat fleet racing you can have right now. I really enjoy the Mini Maxis circuit and we will continue taking part but the TP52's have very competitive racing and I think this will be a great learning experience for us.
Valencia Sailing: What do you need to learn?
Niklas Zennström: The TP52's provide very close boat-to-boat racing and in the starting line you have very close situations while in handicapped racing the yachts tend to be more separated. The TP52 is an extremely competitive fleet and we really like that. The fleet will also have a good size, it seems we will have around 12 boats next year and this is a good number.
Valencia Sailing: Will you also be helming the TP52 yacht?
Niklas Zennström: Yes, that's the plan.
Valencia Sailing: But for a businessman of your caliber isn't this similar to "downsizing"? After a successful campaign with a 72-footer you now "downsize" to a 52-footer.
Niklas Zennström: Well, if your goal is to always move to a bigger boat then you'll end up with a huge yacht you won't enjoy racing. We will obviously continue with the 72-footer but let me give you an example. One of the things we have been doing this year is sail with a Farr 45 in the UK and these are 15-year old boats, not very fast but you get to race against 7-8 boats, have 7 races a week and that was really good. I really enjoy this type of close boat-to-boat racing and I don't think that what really matters is the size of the boat rather than the competitiveness of the fleet. If you take a look at the Medcup circuit this year, you have the best sailors of the world.
Niklas Zennström talks to Valencia Sailing. Valencia, 6 October 2010. Photo copyright Nico Martinez
Valencia Sailing: There is no doubt about that but Emirates Team New Zealand and Team Origin have left the circuit.
Niklas Zennström: You know, that fact had some influence in my decision to enter the TP52 class. In our long-term planning we were considering entering in 2012 but with the Cup teams leaving the circuit you take out the very, very top of the competition that was impossible to beat and this makes it more attractive for someone like myself. A few years ago it was very attractive for a lot of owner-drivers to participate but then they got scared as it became extremely professional. For me, 2011 will be a good year because the Cup teams will not be here and some more owner-drivers will take their place.
Valencia Sailing: What is your team's schedule for the rest of 2010 and next year?
Niklas Zennström: We have already started building the new TP52 yacht at Green Marine in the UK. They also built the 72-footer and we were very pleased with the quality of their work, the craftsmanship and the final product so it was only logical to do it there. The boat was designed by Rolf Vrolijk. He also designed our 72-footer where he did an excellent job. We like working with him and we feel confident with the decisions he will take. Our objective is to have it ready early next spring in order to race in the 2011 PalmaVela, a very good warm-up race in my view. We will then take part in the 2011 AUDI Medcup and the TP52 Worlds.
Valencia Sailing: Since we are right in the middle of Port America's Cup, I can't help asking you about it! Have you ever thought of entering the Cup?
Niklas Zennström: No, it hasn't been part of my agenda. I love this sport because I love sailing myself and with the Mini-Maxis it has been very good because it's an owner-driver rule and as an owner I can drive the yacht myself. I can't do that in the America's Cup. In the TP52's it's true there are lots of professionals but an owner can still be competitive at the helm of the yacht, even if he doesn't win. The America's Cup is completely different. As the owner of the team you write checks but you have no fun. I want to be part of the sailing team, not just sit on the dock.
Valencia Sailing: Yes, but if the Cup were held in monohulls would you consider it?
Niklas Zennström: One of the options they were looking at was indeed a 72-80ft monohull. It is close to a Mini-Maxi but still there is no room for amateur helmsmen. Look at the 32nd edition, there was none. You can of course do it but you won't have any chance of winning. I once had the honor of sailing in the Mini-Maxi Worlds with Bill Koch and he told me that when he won the Cup in 1992 he sailed 330 days in that year. [Laughs] I doubt I can do that much sailing myself...
Valencia Sailing: What will the crew of the TP52 yacht be? Will it be part of the 72-footer or are you going to add some of sailing's "rock stars"?
Niklas Zennström: The crew will be the same. You know, we might not have the best rock stars of the world but we sure have a great rock band. We are very pleased with team and its development and I think we have done a very good job. Tim Powell has built a very good team and has done a really fantastic job. I'm proud of what we have achieved and as I said we might not have one of the big names but as a whole we have a great team. We know each other well, we have good communication and I think it's like any other sport. You need to work as a team.
Valencia Sailing: Having now two campaigns, one in the Mini-Maxis and another one in the TP52's, does it mean you will be sailing more time yourself?
Niklas Zennström: Yes, probably a little bit more. The Mini-Maxi's don't have that many regattas and that was something unfortunate this year. We would have liked having two more regattas. This year, with the 72 we will first do the Syndey-Hobart where I will be one of the helmsmen of the yacht. After that we'll be back in Europe where we'll do the Gotland Runt in Sweden which is a great offshore. We will then try to defend the Fastnet race, that we won in 2008 but lost in 2009, and then the Mini-Maxi World Championship. We will also have a go at the Middle Sea Race, it's a trophy we would like to have.
Valencia Sailing: Finally, have you set a target result for the 2011 AUDI Medcup?
Niklas Zennström: It's too early to say, we'll have to see what teams will be racing next year. Obviously, we don't have any illusions. We have done well in the Mini-Maxi's but here we'll be racing against some top professional drivers. Yet, this is something I look forward to. If you race against the best of the world you get better yourself.