By Alexander Smith
(Reuters) - Italian challengers Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli will this week attempt to wrest the America's Cup from holders Emirates Team New Zealand after a 21-year wait for a second shot at the oldest trophy in international sport.
The last time the Italian team reached the final was also in the waters off Auckland, when they were comprehensively beaten by the New Zealanders.
Defeat did not deter Luna Rossa's billionaire backer Patrizio Bertelli, chief executive of Italian luxury goods group Prada, who has since bankrolled a series of campaigns costing hundreds of millions of dollars in his quest to lift the Cup.
The America's Cup, which was first won in 1851 by the schooner America in a race around the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England, is a design-led head-to-head competition which attracts some of the world's best sailors.
For the 36th America's Cup, which begins with two races on Wednesday after a delay due to recent COVID-19 restrictions in New Zealand, the huge silver trophy known as the "Auld Mug" will be lifted by the first team to reach seven wins.
Out-sailing the Kiwis, who are defending the Cup after beating the United States in Bermuda in 2017, was likened by British sailor Ben Ainslie to beating the All Blacks national rugby team at their home stadium Eden Park in Auckland.
Steered by skipper Peter Burling, New Zealand convincingly demonstrated their revolutionary "foiling" yacht's speed in December when they won a pre-America's Cup series, which included Luna Rossa as well as British and U.S. contenders.
But the Italians, who are using an unusual twin-helm set-up with former America's Cup winner Jimmy Spithill and Italian sailing veteran Francesco Bruni, went on to win the Prada Cup.
They demolished Ainslie's British crew and sealed the right to take on New Zealand in the futuristic AC75s, which "fly" out of the water on hydrofoils and can reach speeds of around 50 knots (93 kilometres per hour).
(Reporting by Alexander Smith; Editing by Clare Fallon)