By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The 34th America's Cup sailing regatta was set to begin in San Francisco on Sunday with only one team competing in the first race as Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge sat out in protest of rule changes it says put it at a disadvantage.
Emirates Team New Zealand is expected to compete in the race course alone in San Francisco Bay in order to formally win the first of several matches in the Louis Vuitton Cup. The winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup will challenge software tycoon Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA for the America's Cup in September.
In keeping with an event where little has gone as planned, Luna Rossa vowed not to show up for the midday match with Emirates Team New Zealand that was supposed to kick off the summer of racing.
Both Luna Rossa, backed by Prada fashion mogul Patrizio Bertelli, and New Zealand have objected to boat design changes that were put in place after a May accident that killed British Olympic sailor and Artemis Racing crew member Andrew Simpson and wrecked the team's boat.
An international jury is considering the arguments, but a formal hearing was not scheduled until Monday - a day after the opening race. New Zealand has promised to race regardless.
Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena said participating in the opening race would implicitly signal his team approves of the rule changes.
"We have no choice but to stay ashore until the International Jury has reached a decision on the matter. We have been forced into this position," Sirena said on his team's website on Sunday.
Ellison, who won the cup in 2010 and with it the right to set the rules for this year's race, hoped to make the 162-year-old competition more accessible to everyday sports fans and push the boundaries of high-tech boat design.
The result was a competition featuring huge lightweight twin-hulled boats made of carbon fibre, with hard "wing" mainsails. Called AC72s, the catamarans have the ability to lift up out of the water on hydrofoils to reach speeds near 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour).
"The people really hurt by this are the fans, who have waited for more than two years to see the first race in these spectacular AC72 catamarans," said Stephen Barclay, the CEO of the America's Cup Authority, in a news release on Saturday in response to Luna Rossa's refusal to race.
Bickering over the rules is an America's Cup tradition. Luna Rossa's refusal to sail on Sunday may ultimately have little impact on the competition. Still, it is be a symbol of how Oracle Corp CEO Ellison's ambitious effort to reshape what critics deride as a rich man's yacht race has gone awry.
Meanwhile, the fourth competitor in the America's Cup, Sweden's Artemis, which is still working to get its second boat ready and will join the competition later in the summer, said on Friday that it would be forced out of the competition if the rule changes were rolled back.
Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand have refused to agree to rule changes affecting the design of a wing-like device attached to the bottom of the boat rudders known as a rudder elevator. They maintain that race director Iain Murray does not have the authority to alter such rules.
(Editing by Jan Paschal)