By Noel Randewich

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Emirates Team New Zealand hopes to clinch the 34th America's Cup on Tuesday by winning the final two races it needs to snatch the trophy from increasingly tenacious defender Oracle Team USA.

New Zealand dominated racing between the two teams in the first week of the America's Cup finals on San Francisco Bay but it ran into trouble over the weekend when a vastly improved Oracle won its second and third matches, interrupting the Kiwis' momentum.

Changes Oracle made to its 72-foot catamaran after losing six of the first seven races in the series, combined with much-improved tacking upwind, have made the team quicker, with both crews now looking similarly polished in their manoeuvres.

"We put in a lot of effort in our days off to make the changes necessary to the boat and review our crew work," Oracle grinder Shannon Falcone said on Sunday. "I feel really comfortable with where we are."

New Zealand now leads the competition seven races to one, with Oracle's first two wins having been negated by a cheating penalty before the finals began. The first team to score nine points will take home the 162-year-old America's Cup trophy.

Two races are planned for Tuesday, with more on Wednesday and Thursday if necessary. High winds forced organizers to call off Saturday's second race and could affect Tuesday's schedule.

After New Zealand narrowly avoided catastrophe on Saturday with a near-capsize that cost it the race, Sunday's matches were among the most thrilling in yacht-racing history. The two supercharged AC72s duelled neck and neck in the second race, changing leads four times, an America's Cup record, before New Zealand eked out a 17-second victory.

"We keep a watchful eye on Oracle and we are impressed by the way they are sailing. We know we have to keep on improving," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said after Sunday's mixed results.

Until the weekend, New Zealand had dominated the competition with superior tacking and upwind boatspeed. New Zealand trounced challengers from Italy and Sweden to gain the right to take on defending champion Oracle in the finals.

The weekend's wild racing was a vindication for America's Cup organizers, led by software mogul Larry Ellison, whose decision to use extremely expensive and sometimes-dangerous high-tech catamarans for the competition has been widely criticized.

When Ellison's team won the America's Cup in Valencia, Spain in 2010, it gained the right to set the rules and chose windy San Francisco Bay for this year's competition.

A dearth of challengers, a cheating scandal, a fatal accident and many weeks of one-sided racing had threatened to make a mockery of the event.

The Kiwis first won the America's Cup in 1995 and successfully defended it in 2000 before losing the trophy three years later to Swiss biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi in a disastrous campaign that left the team in shambles.

(Editing by Alden Bentley)

 

Advertisement