LONDON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Australian skipper Tom Slingsby has been stunned by the performance of SailGP newcomers Spain in practice ahead of his crew's title defence, which starts in Sydney Harbour on Friday.
Spain joined the challengers for SailGP's second series when China dropped out late last year, taking on their futuristic F50 foiling catamaran in a race for a $1 million prize in the 2020 edition of sailing's equivalent of Formula One.
"If you'd asked me before if the Spanish would be a contender I'd have said: 'no way'," Slingsby told Reuters by telephone after the first practice races for the craft, which 'fly' above the water on hydrofoils and are powered by 24 metre high 'wing' sails.
"They started really well and were ahead of us. I expected we would be able to sail through them or catch them on the second lap," Slingsby said, adding that the Spanish crew, led by interim helmsman Phil Robertson, had "won the day in practice".
New Zealander Robertson helmed China's entry during the first season of SailGP and is 'driving' the Spanish catamaran while Spaniard Jordi Xammar focuses on his 470 dinghy Olympic campaign in Tokyo alongside Nicolas Rodriguez.
Slingsby said with Spain and Denmark now in the mix and INEOS-backed Ben Ainslie helming the British crew, racing in SailGP's new season will be much tighter.
"The level has risen and the new teams are strong... we will have to figure out new ways to get through," he said, adding that "the starts are going to be much more important".
Seven of the 15 metre catamarans, which hit speeds of more than 50 knots (93 km), will compete in the first event of 2020 on Friday, with five-man teams representing Australia, Britain, Denmark, France, Japan, Spain and the United States.
"This is like being in a Formula One race with no grid positions. Whoever gets the inside spot at the first corner (it) is everything, you can leave guys behind you and get clear," Olympic gold medallist and America's Cup winner Slingsby said.
SailGP's new series represents a test for the evolution of the fledgling event backed by Oracle's billionaire founder Larry Ellison as it seeks to build sponsorship and audiences.
SailGP said this month it had sold a minority stake to sports and entertainment group Endeavor in a deal which it said valued it at $200 million.
Reporting by Alexander Smith; Editing by Ken Ferris