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Olympic champion Ainslie leads UK bid for America's Cup

By Josh Reich

LONDON (Reuters) - Sailor Ben Ainslie will lead an 80 million pound ($134 million) British challenge for the 35th America's Cup in 2017, aiming to return sport's oldest trophy to his country for the first time.

The four-time Olympic gold medalist helped inspire one of the great sporting comebacks last year when Oracle Team USA rallied from 8-1 down to defeat Emirates Team New Zealand 9-8 and land the trophy.

The 37-year-old has now set his sights on a British challenge, seeking to lead his country to a first win since the competition began in 1851.

The venue for the 2017 regatta has yet to be confirmed, but new protocols, including nationality requirements, have been negotiated by software billionaire Larry Ellison, owner of Oracle, and Team Australia's Hamilton Island Yacht Club, the Challenger of Record.

"It's a huge challenge, there's no doubt about it," Ainslie told reporters at the launch by the river Thames in south London.

"Taking on Larry Ellison and the team is a massive challenge, no question about it," he added.

There has long been speculation that Ainslie planned to lead an America's Cup challenge but he had been awaiting the protocols or guidelines and also putting together the funding and crew.

Telecoms entrepreneur Charles Dunstone said 40 percent of the budget would come from wealthy individuals.

"We needed to form a team before we stand credibly before you today," said Dunstone, chairman and founding shareholder of the Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) team.

BAR board member and one of the founding investors Keith Mills said they would be targeting large British multinational companies, and a naming rights sponsor, but said it was not crucial that they had everything in place before the Aug 8 entry deadline.

"We've had some really goods positive responses, if we have two or three companies (tendering) it would be perfect. At the moment it's bilateral."

Among the new protocols, the next Cup will be sailed with a similar but smaller version of the 72-foot, wing-sail catamarans used in 2013. The new 62-foot boats, called AC62s, will be crewed by eight people, three fewer than last year.

The venue for the racing is yet to be determined, with Hawaii and the coastal cities of Newport, Rhode Island, and San Diego all thought to be in consideration.

Ainslie insisted the racing should take place in San Francisco, venue of last year's regatta.

"It's perfect for the foil boats and you can almost guarantee conditions."

Britain's challenge would be affiliated to the Royal Yacht Squadron as Yacht Squadron Racing.

At least two members of the eight-person crews for each race in 2017 had to be nationals of the country of the yacht club represented, and Ainslie had already put in plenty of groundwork assembling design and sailing teams, including New Zealand's Jono MacBeth, a three-time winner of the Cup, as sailing team manager.

NEWEY SPECULATION

One man who had yet to be signed up was Red Bull Formula One designer Adrian Newey, amid recent speculation he could take his talents off the track and onto the water.

"I've met Adrian a number of times and he's a fantastic guy and an amazing Formula One designer.

"He is very keen on sailing and the America's Cup, but also has a huge commitment to Formula One, so we'll see.

"He'd be a huge asset for our team over the coming months and years if he can find time to be involved, but we'll wait and see."

Having dominated Olympic Sailing for well over a decade, Ainslie said that chapter of his life was closed, and having already claimed on America's Cup title, he was determined to win it again for his homeland.

"It's a childhood ambition to be frank, I grew up down in Cornwall.

"I remember as a kid sitting in my Optimist watching these amazing boats race, and something just bit me. I had this burning desire to be part of winning America's Cup team and I was going to be winning British America's Cup team.

"I was very fortunate to be part of Oracle last time, it was a fantastic experience, a great team, I have a lot of respect for them and Team New Zealand, but we want to win this for Britain."

($1 = 0.5956 British Pounds)

(Additional reporting by Alex Smith; Editing by Keith Weir/Amlan Chakraborty)

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