Young guns and old hands. Which Will Prevail on La Solitaire du Figaro?

Published on 20/08/2021

With no past winners of the overall general classification among the 34 strong fleet which starts the four stage 52nd La Solitaire du Figaro off Saint Nazaire on Sunday, nor has any one or two solo skippers dominated the rich diet of preliminary circuit races, it is therefore difficult to highlight standout favourites to triumph on this edition. The field is a mix of successful, experienced older sailors who have successfully made the transition to the Beneteau Figaro 3 since it was introduced for the 2019 race and up and coming younger soloists who are pushing harder each year, driven by the huge interest in solo offshore and ocean racing and a Figaro circuit which is becoming ever more consolidated and followed in France. And increasingly it is the young guns rather than old wolves who are setting the pace and the agenda.

Alexis Courcoux
Alexis Courcoux

There are five French racers who have finished on the overall podium at least once. Starting his tenth La Solitaire Gildas Mahé (Breizh Cola) may be dean of the fleet at 46 years old but he was runner up in the bumper 50 boat 2019 edition – the debut of the Figaro Beneteau 3 - behind Yoanne Richomme.

Xavier Macaire, 40, (Groupe SNEF) won the first leg last year and is widely tipped this time after winning both the Solo Guy Cotten – the most recent solo event – and the Sardinha Cup, the season’s double handed opener. Macaire is a leading light on the Team Vendée Formation group, his best finish was his second behind Yann Eliès in 2012. Also with second place general classification finishes on their CV are Corentin Horeau, 32, (Mutuel Bleu Pour L’Institut Curie) – runner up in 2014 - and Fabien Delahaye (Groupe Gilbert). Second in 2011 Delahaye has four top tens from his eight participations.

At 24 years old Tom Laperche (CMB Bretagne Performance) is very much representative of the new generation. With an original background in flying multihull and windsurfing, Laperche debuted in 2019 in 11th but finished third last year. Second in the Solo Maitre Coq, he is being likened to a young Francois Gabart and, indeed, has been hand picked by Gabart to co-skipper his new giant Ultime in the upcoming Transat Jacques Vabre.

Young guns have the firepower
Mahé considers the competition against the likes of Laperche (Bretagne- CMB Performance),
“I’m the dean, but I don’t feel old. The fleet has brought on lot of youthful talents. I have the impression that there are a lot of young guys doing well and that there are a lot of people capable of winning it. I’m part of.” “I have made good progress in mastering the boat ” says the skipper who along with Alexis Loison (Region Normandie) on his fifteenth participation, are probably the most experienced in terms of La Solitaire du Figaro racing miles on the clock.

Eric Peron (French Touch) who is one of the five skippers who are past stage winner, round the world racer Peron triumphing into Dieppe on the last leg in 2019, believes,
“For me, there are three groups. The first is made up of old-timers who remain very consistent in their sailing, so the likes of past stage winners like Xavier Macaire, who has really been going well since the start of this season. The second group made up of solo sailors who efficient, consistent and always there, sailing and positioning their boats well. They can go well on the overall classification. And then there is the young guard, with Tom Laperche at the top who shakes up the hierarchy. All in all this means that the game is very open.”

The Internationals. The VIVI Trophy.
There are seven skippers from outside of France. Since 2019 the best of them on the general classification has won the VIVI Trophy. The VIVI Trophy was donated by Marcus and Meagan Hutchinson and Elianne and Bernard Lalanne two years ago in the first season with the Beneteau Figaro 3. Their idea was to shine the spotlight on the successes of skippers from outside of France and to encourage and mobilise more solo racers to come to France and participate.

The difference with the internationals this year is that all three have a justifiable claim to a place on the general classification podium and/or a stage win.

Switzerland’s Nils Palmieri (TeamWork) who has improved significantly since finishing second Bizuth last year. Winner of the Transat en double Concarneau Saint Barthélemy with Julien Villion in the Spring this year. Roberts is on his eighth consecutive participation and after his tenth place last year and career best ninth in 2014, now has the experience and – he believes – the speed to get on the podium. Ireland’s Tom Dolan, 34, (Smurfit Kappa-Kingspan) has a well appointed programme now with the arrival of co-sponsor Kingspan which has allowed him to substantially update his sail programme. A very consistent race in 2020 saw him finish fifth overall. He highlighted his ongoing form more recently with fifth in the Solo Guy Cotton.

I feel like with the experience and the confidence I have from last year’s result, and the consistent finishes, that I can operate a bit more conservatively, that is to say at 95-98 per cent at times to ensure I conserve some energy for the long game.” Notes Dolan, “And in that respect having to still look after the ankle a little bit is a blessing. I have to move more carefully and gently around the boat.”

And while the Top 5 result last season undoubtedly boosted his morale, his confidence and his profile, now as he contemplates Sunday’s start that result does now bring a need and desire to improve on it. He says he is not too concerned about this added pressure.

“I have to do better than fifth, that is the target. I don’t know how I am going to feel if I don’t do better than that, but I don’t feel under pressure. I have support for the next three years and my aim is to win La Solitaire at some point before then. That is what I am focusing on with no distractions. I don’t really want to be looking at other races, other classes, other targets in the meantime.”

Alan Roberts (Seacat Services), at 31 years old, starts his eighth consecutive La Solitaire du Figaro after finishing tenth overall last year and ninth in 2014. Roberts contends, “ I definitely feel this year my speed has been a lot better and I know the whole process of La Solitaire a lot better. I know what lies ahead and I know the lead up to it. But the thing is here you can sail very well and not win. You have to not make mistakes. The key is to be level headed, calm and calculated all the way through.”

The 2020 race was cut to three legs because of a lack of wind for the final 24 hours sprint, Roberts is pleased to see the return of a fulsome, long course.“I think the format this time is great with four long legs, two long open ocean legs and two in the English channel gives it a nice balance. It is nice to be back to the four long legs and feels like a proper, long Solitaire.”

Brutal challenge
Roberts reflects on the simple brutal challenge that awaits the 34 skippers, “It is like doing four Fastnet races in a month. Solo. That is the key point. I have just done the Fastnet and was no less attentive doing the navigation but the physical and mental exertion does not even come close. And now in the Figaro fleet it is who can push themselves hardest, who can suffer most and longest. Who can abuse their body more will gain because you are putting more into it.”

He highlights, “When you come out of La Solitaire the body and the mind are completely battered. The guys are pushing harder and harder with a full professional circuit now. The young guns have a lot to gain and are out to prove themselves. There are a lot of guys now who can keep going and keep going, keeping that same level of concentration up. I think the level has gone up in the last two years. In the old boats, the Figaro 2, it was less demanding, they were less sensitive. You could soak going downwind, you could defend positions. Now you can’t be that passive, you can’t soak and defend your position against the fleet, you will die in this fleet if you do that. Here in this boat you have to sail your angles and sail fast all the time. I think the energy that needs to be put in has increased many times over.”

Roberts has already done more editions of La Solitaire than any other non-French sailor but reflects again that his net budget remains around one third of the top French teams.
“When I tell the coaches at the French groups what I operate on they say it is impossible!”

And Roberts observes, “You see that when the like of Yann Eliès and Jérémie Beyou come back in, they don’t have an edge like they had in the Figaro. They were the best in the world in the Figaro 2, you see them now in the IMOCA 60 and they sail amazingly well, but the Figaro 3 has taken on another level of how hard you can push yourself. You don’t necessarily have to do that in the IMOCA 60s or Class40, this is very specific in how much you have to push. You have to have the hunger. I remember in 2019 working with Jérémie Beyou and he really had to put himself in that place to find the hunger. I have the hunger. As much as I am here for the development, the learning, the training and this is the best place to be, I have the hunger to win it. I want the result.”

Ireland’s Marcus Hutchinson, long time follower, fan, project manager and boat owner says of the VIVI Trophy match
“I am really looking forwards to seeing how this plays out. All of them have the capacity to be in the top five or the podium, even. I am super impressed by the progress Nils has made in a year. And in the background Francesca Clapcich will be a talent for the future I am sure. She has the background and mindset and I would love to see her at least have a really good stage. So far in two years there have been two different winners in Alan and Tom and it could well be three different winners in three years.”


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