Spanish Eyes are Smiling, Mapfre Wins leg 4 to Auckland!

What a difference three legs make. MAPFRE finished rock bottom in Cape Town after Leg 1, but tonight, here in Auckland, they emerged victorious from one of the most closely fought stages this 41-year-old race has ever witnessed. No wonder their stand-in skipper Fern��_ndez looked so happy. And no wonder he and the rest of his crew looked so exhausted. "Super happy, super happy," beams Xabi. "It was a very tough leg, a very tough last few days especially. "We were struggling with Abu Dhabi and Dongfeng at the beginning, we were a bit slower, and in the Doldrums too. And this morning we saw them very close and managed to pass them. Since then we led the whole way!" We've now had four legs of nine - and four different winners. First, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, then Team Brunel, followed by Dongfeng Race Team and now MAPFRE. For the best part of two days, the Spanish boat had been in a tussle with Abu Dhabi and Dongfeng for the honour of winning this epic 5,264-nautical mile Leg 4 from Sanya to the ��_City of Sails'. In the end, they pipped Ian Walker's crew by four minutes 25 seconds with the Chinese boat, in turn, hot on the Emirati boat's heels in a showdown down to the wire for second. They eventually claimed that contest by less than four minutes, tiny margins after so long sailing through the South China Sea and then Pacific Ocean. The victory could not have been better timed in so many ways. None of the race's 11 ports is quite as sailing-crazy as New Zealand's most populous city and the people came out in their tens of thousands - many of them by water - to see the fleet home. MAPFRE had been gradually showing improved form since that disappointing opening leg from Alicante to Cape Town, despite their usual skipper Iker Mart��_nez missing out the last two legs to concentrate on his Rio Olympics preparations for 2016. Xabi, his best buddy and long-time co-competitor, has proved more than an adequate stand-in. "We improved a lot during Leg 2 and Leg 3, but we were still doing some mistakes," says the Basque sailor. "We have a very good team to do well and I hope we'll keep doing like this."