By Alexander Smith
LONDON (Reuters) - Ben Ainslie will helm the British entry in the 2020 series of SailGP with backing from INEOS Team UK, adding the catamaran competition to his campaign to win the America's Cup in New Zealand in 2021.
SailGP said on Tuesday that Ainslie, the most successful Olympic sailor, has signed up to the 2020 circuit which will pit crews from Australia, China, France, Great Britain, Japan and the United States against each other in high-speed catamarans.
Culminating in a winner-takes-all $1 million prize, SailGP was established in 2018 by Oracle founder Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts after Emirates Team New Zealand lifted the last America's Cup and opted to move back to monohulls.
New Zealand's decision to contest the 36th America's Cup in revolutionary single-hulled boats ended plans led by Ellison and Coutts to turn the oldest trophy in international sport into a more frequent circuit event sailed in high-tech catamarans.
The foiling F50 catamarans used in SailGP, which lift up above the water on hydrofoils, are an updated version of those used during the America's Cup in Bermuda in 2017 and in their first season reached 50 knots (93 kilometres per hour).
"The cutting-edge technology, speed and athletic requirements of the championship will provide a great sporting challenge," Ainslie said in a statement announcing his move.
As well as its America's Cup challenge and its Team INEOS cycling team, Ainslie's backer INEOS, run by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, already owns French Ligue 1 football club OGC Nice and Swiss club Lausanne-Sport.
"With crucial support from INEOS, Sir Ben Ainslie and the Great Britain SailGP Team will be contenders from day one and will create even more thrilling competition across our growing league," SailGP CEO Russell Coutts added.
SailGP's second season is due to begin in Sydney in February and Ainslie's team, which will include a combination of sailors from his America's Cup squad and existing members of the British SailGP crew, will be announced early next year.
The event's organisers said it reached a total global TV audience of 256 million during its first season, which was bankrolled by Oracle's Ellison who with Coutts is aiming to make the annual global competition and its teams self-sustaining.
The British SailGP team finished fourth in their first attempt, behind winners Australia, Japan and China, and ahead of France and the United States.
(Reporting by Alexander Smith; Editing by Hugh Lawson)