News Exclusive interview with Five°West

30 Nov 2015

Grand prix yacht racing teams are becoming increasingly complex beasts, particularly those that are sponsored. There is of course everything related to the boat itself - ensuring it is constantly maintained and tweaked, the bread and butter for its sailors and shore crew. In circuits where boat development is still permitted, campaigns are now following the example of America’s Cup or pre-one design Volvo Ocean Race teams in having their own design resources – in-house naval architects, engineers, CFD experts and the like.

Then there is the whole commercial side: for the most successful sponsored campaigns, the backer typically spends as much on the boat, crew and team as it does on the marketing and commercial ‘activation’ of its campaign. So, whether the team is handling this or it is sub-contracted, a considerable resource is required to ensure the sponsor meets its goals and delivers on its return on investment targets. To look after this, media and PR teams are employed, also handling social media and video, plus sponsorship and marketing personnel, and a logistics team to manage the operation of not just the team, its staff and assets, but the corporate hospitality effort too.

As complex as this may be, a company which has mastered all of it is Five°West. Through its work with Alex Thomson’s IMOCA 60 campaigns, Five°West has not only lured into sailing Hugo Boss, one of the world’s best known consumer brands, but has kept them on board as title sponsor for the last 12 years. This year Five°West enticed another major international brand, luxury car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz, to Thomson’s campaign.

5west banner
At present Five°West is expanding and Managing Director Stewart Hosford believes that its infra-structure and experience make his company well positioned to operate in related areas of the marine market, such as managing privately-owned performance superyachts and maxi yachts that race: “As sailing superyachts become more closely aligned to racing yachts in terms of their technology - ballast systems, canting keels, carbon construction, hydraulics, etc - there’s actually very little difference in terms of their systems and processes.”

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Stewart Hosford

Hosford joined Five°West five years ago, coming from Royal Bank of Scotland where his responsibilities included securing sports sponsorship deals in 6 Nations rugby, golf, Formula 1 and tennis. Since being recruited, he has been putting the pieces in place for the sailing campaigns: “A process, a risk plan and a team - I’ve set up systems, IT and tracking, and run builds, materials, etc.”

While it is best known for being behind Alex Thomson’s IMOCA campaigns, Five°West has also run other teams, such as Guillermo Altadill and José Muñoz’s Neutrogena in the last Barcelona World Race, plus Class40s and, currently, Invictus, the new Ker 40+ of Five°West Chairman, Sir Keith Mills.

There was a time when the company had three IMOCA 60s on its books, one on a permanent tour of the globe, promoting Hugo Boss and acting as a corporate entertainment platform for its staff and clients from afar afield as Australia and China to Sweden and Poland. “We take our boats all around the world, in and out of ports, to entertain Hugo Boss guests,” says Hosford. He feels that this also makes them well-placed to handle privately-owned big boat campaigns. “We make sure that it’s all done properly with cars, transfers, airports, etc. So we can manage not just the technical side, but also the logistics and entertainment and everything else that goes alongside those. So we wouldn’t be uncomfortable putting together crews, racing campaigns, logistics, looking after owners…the whole piece.”

These days, Hosford adds, owners feel more comfortable placing the responsibility for running their giant asset, which can have an annual budget akin to that of a medium-sized corporation, in the hands of a company rather than an individual. He adds that companies such as Five°West also have systems in place to demonstrate complete accountability to their clients.

Thanks to Hugo Boss’ 30 year association with McLaren and more recently with Mercedes, Five°West has had a long association with Formula 1. While drivers including Lewis Hamilton and David Coulthard have sailed on the IMOCA 60, the more valuable union of the two sports has been technological, says Hosford, “particularly in terms of our really understanding what’s on our boat, how much it weighs, really understanding how many cycles it’s done, etc. Unless we really get our heads around that, we’re never going to solve reliability problems.”

While Ben Ainslie Racing may have secured ex-McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarch and design guru Adrian Newey, Alex Thomson Racing now has former McLaren Technical Co-ordinator Peter Vale as its full time Performance Manager. According to Hosford, Five°West is already following the example of the bigger F1 teams, where the race team is up front and centre stage, but with other compatible companies piggybacking on top it, benefitting from its skills, knowledge and infrastructure. “We have capability to take on other campaigns and use the skills and experience in the supply chain that we have in order to deliver great campaigns for other owners.”

For example through their IMOCA campaigns they have strong relationships with companies such as Doyles, plus BASF (which made the ground breaking thermally reflective black paint as used on the latest Hugo Boss), Gleinstein Ropes, Crewsaver, PRS Machining and Haydale, a UK company with the technology to harness the latest wonder nano-material, Graphene. “Bringing together the four things: Team, experience, processes and systems, and supply chain, allows us to present ourselves as a very capable company that can take on a number of big campaigns,” says Hosford.

On the sails-side, Hugo Boss has been using Stratis sails, built in New Zealand by Doyle Sails, since 2009 and according to skipper Alex Thomson they have had around 15 suits since, including the sails that caused him to complete the last Vendée Globe. “They went round the world in the Vendee Globe, finishing third, with very little problems at all. We consider it to be as reliable, perhaps more reliable than the competition.”

Hugo Boss

Hugo Boss just after launch

Going into this latest Vendee Globe cycle they looked at their options once again and returned to ICE. “Weight-wise it’s certainly comparable and some of the sails we believe will be a little bit lighter than the competition. In terms of shape-holding etcetera, using the ICE we can certainly see the difference - it’s worked really well. So for the next four year programme we’ve committed to going with Doyle Stratis. We’ve got a product that we’ve proven, is very reliable, that we’ve helped develop and we’re really confident in.”

On sail design side, they work with Richard Bouzaid, who is now part of the team. “He commits an enormous amount of time, energy and emotion,” continues Thomson. “He’s as involved in the project as our boatbuilder or our electronics person and that’s critical for this kind of thing.”

Following the disappointing capsizing of the new Hugo Boss in her inaugural race work is now underway to repair the boat and build new sails ready for her to be back on the water in February 2016 ahead of the build up for the next Vendee. All eyes are on the new IMOCA 60s, which all feature retractable angled lateral foils that are supposed to prevent leeway and provide vertical lift, to reduce wetted area rather than fully fly. However, while clearly the future, the foils are currently a major ‘work in progress’ for the teams.

“I think the jury’s out as to whether they are a good thing,” says Thomson. “Probably these new boats aren’t going to be as good upwind, but with the foils and the lighter weight while powering up (lighter ballast), they should be quicker off the breeze.” Possibly as much as 2 knots quicker, Thomson believes.
All six new IMOCA 60s were designed by VPLP-Verdier but of them, the new Green Marine-built Hugo Boss is the ‘latest’ generation. Aside from her striking paintjob, most noticeable is the huge chamfer between the hull-deck join around her bow area, just one example of a general push towards reducing windage and lowering centre of gravity.

Since the last generation of IMOCA 60s was launched, there has been a rule change affecting the stability of the boats but also requiring them to have a one design mast and keel foil. As Thomson observes: “These new generation boats are slightly heavier than the lightest of the older generation. But in light conditions when we’re ballasted we should be a little bit lighter than the old generation.” So the school is out and with just one year left until the Vendée Globe it will be interesting to see if the new generation foils come good before then.

Interview by James Boyd