Emirates Team New Zealand seized the lead in the America’s Cup qualifying round robin with two impressive victories Friday as underdogs Groupama Team France were eliminated from contention.

New Zealand’s victories over SoftBank Team Japan and France saw them surpass holders Oracle Team USA atop the standings with eight points.

Team USA remained stuck on seven points as they were handed just their second defeat of the competition by Artemis Racing of Sweden.

Artemis further strengthened their position with a convincing win over Japan in the final race of the day.

With one last day of round robin racing to come on Saturday, the challenger semi-finalists are now decided — New Zealand, Sweden, Britain’s Land Rover BAR and Japan.

As the defending champions, Team USA will sit out the semi-finals and final of qualifying and await the challenger they produce for the 35th America’s Cup.

But before then, the US and New Zealand will cap the round robin with a rematch of the 2013 America’s Cup match in San Francisco on Saturday.

Even though the semi-final teams have been decided there’s something to race for: the team that tops the round robin standings can take a bonus point into the 35th America’s Cup matches that will start on June 17 on Bermuda’s Great Sound.

“It’s a big one tomorrow,” Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill said. “The boys are pumped up for it. The forecast is great and I think it will be one hell of a race.”

After frustrating light winds on Thursday, conditions were perfect on the sound on Friday, with winds around 15 knots.

Team New Zealand took full advantage with two near-faultless performances. 

New Zealand skipper Peter Burling powered off the starting line to take a three-second lead at the first gate.

A poor tack cost Dean Barker’s Japan more time and New Zealand were never threatened, winning by 51 seconds in a race that saw them up on their hydrofoils for 99.6 percent of the distance.

“The boys sailed a great race,” Burling said. “We definitely learned a lot the last time we sailed in these conditions. We really set thing up nicely with that start against Dean, who has been one of the strongest starters in the regatta so far.”

– Trying to improve –

But there was even better to come as New Zealand became the first team to achieve an official “perfect” race, foiling around the entire course without touching their hulls down to beat France by four minutes and six seconds.

It was no real surprise to see skipper Franck Cammas’ French outfit fall by the wayside.

They were latecomers to the competition, and their budget of 30 million euros (US$33.8 million) is significantly smaller than those of the other teams, whose outlay is closer to 100 million euros.

Team USA are hoping that translates to a third straight victory in the America’s Cup, and that Friday’s defeat is just a blip on the radar.

A broken rudder during race preparations made for a chaotic start for Oracle. The boat was towed into shore and a new set of rudders installed, but Artemis won the start and never trailed.

Spithill said he didn’t even know if he’d make it to the start line after the rudder mishap.

“It wasn an amazing effort by the shore crew,” he said. ‘It’s a shame we couldn’t reward them with a win, but it’s good to know what we’re capable of when it comes down to it.”

Spithill said it wasn’t the confusion, but a crash down from their foils on the pre-start that cost Oracle the race.

“The shore team got us in a position to win,” he said. “We have to look at what happened there.”

Artemis also led wire-to-wire in their 18-second victory over Team Japan.

In addition to the New Zealand-USA showdown, Saturday’s last day of round robin racing will feature Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR taking on both Japan and Oracle and Artemis taking on France. – Agence France-Presse

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