Top Four Challengers Get No Challenge at All : Sailing: New Zealand, Nippon, Il Moro di Venezia and Ville de Paris win on a day of routs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first division of America's Cup challengers never strayed from form Thursday in the second round of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

The four syndicates at the top of the challenger standings were paired against the four at the bottom, and everyone wondered whether there was an upset on the wind.

Upsets? There nearly wasn't any wind on the wind. After enduring a delay of 1 hour 25 minutes because of no breeze, the races began, and the pecking order remained unfettered.

"The cards were laid out, they just had to be turned over," said Peter Isler, an ESPN analyst and former Star & Stripes navigator. "Whenever you split the fleet and have the top half sailing against the bottom half, or the A team against the B team, you pretty much know what's going to happen."

New Zealand, No. 1 in won-loss record (11-1) and in point standings, overwhelmed Tre Kronor (1-10) by 5:37; Nippon (10-2) breezed to a 4:12 victory over Espana '92 (4-8); Il Moro di Venezia (9-3) turned back Spirit of Australia (5-7) in 7:48; and Ville de Paris (8-4) put the crunch on hapless Challenge Australia (0-12) by 7:18.

"There is a lack of depth in the challenger ranks," Isler said. "Usually you have one or two featured races, and you know the outcome of the rest. It ends up where there is sometimes one day of no featured races.

"You hope (for an upset), but different boats go different speeds. And unless there's a change in the wind or a shift where the slower boat can get in an advantageous position. . . . That's the tough thing. We consistently see the difference in the boat speed and not in the crew."

There were no such shifts Thursday. Granted, the wind grew from 4 to 8 knots, but the shift was a slight 10 degrees.

Aside from the start--and the first leg of the Il Moro-Spirit of Australia race where the Aussies held the Italians to a respectable 1:06 lead--phrases like "long way behind," "25-boat length lead," and "well ahead of," were standard.

Racing was so one-sided, in fact, upon rounding the seventh mark and heading home, the first boat in the second race--Nippon--passed the second boat in the first race--Spirit of Australia--and the first boat in the third race--New Zealand--overtook the second boat in the second race--Espana '92.

After an 11-second, come-from-behind victory against France Monday, Il Moro skipper Paul Cayard said he was finally having fun, after he was "starting to think sailing was really a boring sport."

Cayard didn't address his attention span Thursday, but alluded to the fact that the seesaw competition was a good enough reason for Il Moro to try out one of its new carbon fiber headsails.

"You can draw your own conclusion on that," he said of Italy's decision to debut the sail against Spirit of Australia. "It's brand new, it's a little like having a brand new mast out for the first day. You wouldn't take it out in 25 (knots). . . . It's the first time there's ever been a carbon sail and we put it up in a race. We weren't out there sailing around the track by ourselves, but we weren't in the heat of Italy-France II."

The match that best demonstrated what a mismatch at sea this really was had to be the French and Challenge Australia. It started off slow and disintegrated from there.

Challenge Australia, which is to the America's Cup what the Moroccan skier was to the men's downhill in Albertville earlier this week, bobbed around the start line and fell behind 4:20 by the first mark.

Syndicate head Syd Fischer was expected to make more of a sailing impact on land, where he was to have formally announced his offer of assistance, in the form of his sailing loft, to Iain Murray's Spirit of Australia.

But Fischer said he planned to meet with Murray this morning and disclose the results of that meeting later in the day.

After on-the-water umpires waved off a protest by the Japanese, Nippon took an immediate and decisive lead against the Spanish which it never relinquished.

Rounding the seventh mark, Nippon and Spirit of Australia were 12 seconds apart. Unfortunately, they weren't racing against one another.

New Zealand used the day to play musical chairs with its crew. Among 10 crew changes was Russell Coutts making his first appearance for the Kiwis at the helm. It was Brad Butterworth's first shot on board the boat as tactician.

Coutts is a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the Finn class and the third-ranked match racer in the world.

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